NEW YORK — “I left the Soviet Union in 1976, and the idea that there’d ever be a Russian movie about Sobibor was unthinkable,” said entrepreneur and philanthropist Phil Friedman to a group of notables Sunday at Manhattan’s National Arts Club.
It was among the first significant American screenings of “Sobibor,” which the Russian Federation is submitting as its official pick for the Academy Award. It is directed by and stars Konstantin Khabensky as Alexander Pechersky, Soviet-Jewish mastermind of a successful extermination camp revolt in 1943.
“My parents were concentration camp survivors,” Friedman continued before the film began. “My mother was 16 at Auschwitz. It was too painful to talk about. But Jews have a mission: to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
With that (and additional comments about Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán and Britain’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn) Friedman introduced Konstantin Khabensky, who told the audience to “enjoy the film — if that’s possible.”
“Sobibor” is a difficult sit. It opens with a trainload of fresh Jews arriving at a camp quite different in its exterior than how we see Auschwitz in “Schindler’s List.” (Sobibor was an extermination camp, but much smaller.) There are pleasantries and welcomes. The notorious “left or right” selection is replaced with an almost friendly speech and a call for workers with skills. As women are led off to a shower, there are smiles. Everyone can use some freshening up after two days’ travel.
The shower room soon fills with gas, of course, and Khabensky doesn’t hold back showing the mass asphyxiation in all its horror. The movie was less than 15 minutes in and we already had our first walk-out. For some this is just too much to witness, and everyone knows their own limits.
While I recognize the historical importance of this film (and we’ll get to more of that in a minute) I can’t argue that “Sobibor” is a wholly successful film on its artistic merits. Until the very, very end (as in, final three minutes) there isn’t much in the way of visual style of narrative sophistication. Its purpose seems to solely to rattle the viewer with a new atrocity every few minutes. You can practically set your watch to the next whipping or arbitrary gunshot to the back of the head.
In his opening remarks Khabensky said the camp itself was the star of the film, and that he was less interested in a traditional plot. If that is the case, mission accomplished, but there are diminishing returns with such an approach.
An extended sequence in which a group of drunken Germans tie Jews up to carriages to whip them through “horse races” is no doubt emblematic of the very real dehumanization and brutality the prisoners faced, but the heightened way in which it plays out teeters on absurdity. There is a line of where “artistic” difficult viewing ends and exploitation begins, and for me the film’s footing occasionally slipped over it.
“Sobibor” concludes with Khabensky’s Pechersky leading the strike against camp guards, initially using workman’s tools. Brains are splattered, bones are shattered, and miraculously 300 Jews escape. The camp, where 250,000 Jews were murdered, was shut down soon thereafter.
Some Holocaust survivors and descendants of people killed at Sobibor were in attendance at the National Arts Club, as were a group of scholars. Professor Olga Gerhenson of the University of Massachusetts Amherst noted that the Soviets were making anti-Nazi films regularly by 1938, far earlier than the United States, but never anything that touched upon the Jewish genocide. The trend continued long after the war and into modern times as “the Jewish story of the Holocaust is an uncomfortable issue in Russia today.”
Khabensky, a successful actor (best known outside of Russia for the sci-fi vampire films “Night Watch” and “Day Watch”) and respected for humanitarian work, decided that portraying Pechersky should also be his directorial debut “because it was time in my professional life to make a statement.”
He was able to secure government financing, but was warned that this was a complex topic, and he should not expect that much of a commercial return. To great applause, Khabensky boasted that “Sobibor” has made six times its projected box office receipts in Russia.
“Sobibor” is Russia’s Academy Award selection, and that is notable in itself, but I’d say the chances of it making to the final five nominees is slim. This is an exceptional year, with Mexico’s “Roma,” Poland’s “Cold War,” South Korea’s “Burning,” Japan’s “Shoplifters” and many others (including Israel’s “The Cakemaker”) as more likely contenders. But I’ve been wrong before, so don’t cry to me if you start making wagers and “Sobibor” makes the cut.
What’s most important, even if this movie wasn’t exactly the highlight of my week, is that these stories continue to be told in every imaginable form. That includes rolling out more of Claude Lanzmann’s patient, archival interviews as well as narrative films with big shoot-out endings like this.
“You don’t have to talk about this movie after,” Khabensky told us. “You need to feel, you need to think.”
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