Issue 62 (2018)

Konstantin Khabenskii: Sobibor (2018)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2018

This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the uprisings at Treblinka and Sobibor, the only two mass escapes from Nazi death camps. Entirely coincidentally, these revolts occurred only ten weeks and 200 km apart (Treblinka on 2 August 1943 and Sobibor on 14 October 1943, in eastern Poland), but their close proximity in time and space eroded German complacency about their control over their killing machine. Reprisals were savage, and the “Operation Reinhard” camps (which included Belzec) were ploughed under, all remaining inmates executed.

sobiborThe events at Sobibor, already memorialized in the surprisingly good 1987 television film Escape from Sobibor (directed by Jack Gold for CBS and ITV), has long cried out for Russian treatment because one of the revolt’s two leaders, Lt. Aleksandr Pecherskii (1909-1990), was a Soviet Jew, a Red Army POW who had fallen into German hands in 1941 at the Battle of Moscow but not discovered to be a Jew until 1942. He was then sent to the Minsk ghetto, and from there to Sobibor in late September 1943. At Sobibor, Pecherskii was quickly recruited by Leon Feldhendler (1910-1945), the Polish Jew who led the camp “underground” and had long been planning a large-scale escape; Feldhendler realized, however, that he lacked the strategic abilities that Pecherskii possessed in abundance. Pecherskii crafted the plan, and Feldhendler put his large network of trusted camp comrades to work executing it, a complicated endeavor since it involved coordinating the inmates in two of Sobibor’s three camps.

Most KinoKultura readers know why this “real-life” story of Soviet wartime heroism could not be filmed in Soviet times despite the massive cinematic war cult, even if they had never before heard of Pecherskii, through Jeremy Hicks’ and Olga Gershenson’s recent studies of those few Soviet Holocaust films that could be made. The proclaimed “universality” of Soviet suffering during the Great Patriotic War made singling out Jews as the main target of German extermination tactics more or less impossible in Soviet times. The Holocaust is still a seriously under-researched topic in Russia; Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad’s classic study of the Operation Reinhard camps remains the standard scholarly source for understanding what happened at Sobibor.

sobiborAdded to the “problem” of Sobibor’s undeniably Jewish population, the unfortunate Pecherskii had broken a cardinal rule of the Red Army officer: he “allowed” himself to be captured rather than committing suicide. So when he finally rejoined the Red Army in 1944 after a year fighting with communist partisans in eastern Poland, he was arrested and thrust back into the inferno in a penal battalion. Miraculously surviving, with commendations for his bravery on the field (and promotion to captain), Pecherskii again found himself under arrest in 1948, swept up in the anti-Semitic “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. Due to international pressure (his heroism at Sobibor was well known abroad), he was released fairly quickly but could not find employment until after Stalin’s death. Not surprisingly, Pecherskii chose to live quietly until his death in 1990, although he was disappointed not to be able to accept invitations to travel abroad to testify at the war crimes trials of Sobibor guards.

This long historical preamble is necessary to explain why Sobibor, despite its myriad shortcomings as a film, must be considered a historic event for Russian cinema. The film, which was financially supported by the Ministry of Culture, had a “blockbuster” budget by Russian standards, $2.6 million (RUR 180 million), very unusual for a first-time director like Konstantin Khabenskii, the well-known actor who also plays Pecherskii. Unlike many self-proclaimed Russian blockbusters, Sobibor actually turned a profit, earning over $5 million to date. That Sobibor had received the state’s imprimatur was further indicated when the Kremlin screened it for Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at their January 2018 summit in Moscow; this was followed by a joint “video bridge” screening and discussion for the Duma and the Knesset in April. Sobibor was also shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May (outside the competition); while it has been picked up for theatrical or video distribution by a few Western European countries, including the UK, it has yet to find a US distributor.

Based on the “true” history of the revolt and Pecherskii’s role in it, as sketched above, Sobibor’s subject is tailor made for the mythopoeic filmmaking so popular among recent Russian directors of historical epics (Andrei Kravchuk’s The Viking [2016] immediately comes to mind). In interviews promoting the film, Khabenskii declared that his vision for Sobibor was “universal” and that he did not intend to be constrained by the facts. (This is in sharp contrast to Gold’s Escape from Sobibor, a tightly plotted historical drama that hews closely to survivors’ accounts of camp life and the escape.)

sobiborKhabenskii has obviously watched at least some of the European and American Holocaust films made over the past twenty-five years because Sobibor’s opening scenes incorporate every hoary trope of the genre. As a new transport arrives, inmate violinists and smiling SS officers wait to greet the immaculately dressed, obviously “bourgeois” Jews as they daintily step off the train. The selection process is orderly, and few seem to entertain any doubts that Sobibor is a way station before resettlement. Men with trade skills (jeweler, cobbler, tailor) eagerly volunteer themselves, while their women, elders, and children are led away. After the obligatory barbershop scene, the women strip for the showers. An SS officer watches impassively as they are suffocated, screaming; the scene’s final shot lingers over a decoratively arranged pile of their corpses. Holocaust porn.

For most of Sobibor’s first hour, it is clear that Khabenskii subscribes to the Hungarian school of Holocaust cinema, by which I mean the relentlessly dark and gritty naturalism of films like Lajos Koltai’s Fateless (Sorstalanság, 2005) and László Nemes’s Son of Saul (Saul fia, 2015). The sun never shines over Khabenskii’s Sobibor (exemplifying the picture’s heavy-handed symbolism), and the lighting is so low in the interior shots that it is almost impossible to distinguish the characters’ faces, even Pecherskii’s, except on those occasions when the hero’s face emerges from the pitch black in chiaroscuro.

sobiborInterestingly, Khabenskii displays no actorly egotism in his portrayal of Percherskii. This Pecherskii lacks the charisma of Khabenskii’s Kolchak in The Admiral (Andrei Kravchuk, 2008), and one is hard put to understand why the inmates follow him so eagerly or why the camp’s few women fawn over him. Not until the much-recounted incident of Pecherskii’s being challenged by the camp commandant Frenzel (a steely-eyed Christopher Lambert) to chop an enormous tree stump in five minutes does the viewer understand that Pecherskii is truly a Hero. Not only does the exhausted Pecherskii achieve a superhuman feat, he also refuses his reward, in this rendering an apple, archly explaining to Frenzel that he has no appetite because the prisoners are so well fed.

By the midpoint of the movie, the pace picks up with an increasing frenzy of violence, especially vicious beatings that take on an orgiastic dimension from the Germans’ barely suppressed sexual desire for the forbidden flesh of the Jewish women. After Pecherskii demolishes the stump, Frenzel is determined to crush him. The tone shifts from the naturalism of the first half to a phantasmagoric orgy of violence seemingly inspired by the village massacre scene in Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985), but handled with much less artistry. This culminates with the Germans staging a mock execution, followed by actual beatings and summary executions of inmates, as the drunken guards laugh uproariously. When one guard douses a prisoner in alcohol and sets him on fire, Pecherskii decides to intervene. Frenzel then hitches him to his “throne” and forces Pecherskii to pull him round and round, whipping him all the way, to the accompaniment of violins. This apotheosis of sadism may be the most extreme example of Holocaust porn ever filmed, supporting the views of those who argue that any exploitation of the Holocaust as mass entertainment is obscene.

sobiborThe actual escape from Sobibor comes almost as an afterthought. Khabenskii spends as much time on the feuds and mistrust among the inmates as he does on the planning of the revolt (the conspirators’ mistrust of the kapos and other potential inmate traitors was real enough but overemphasized here). Not surprisingly, given that this is a Russian film, Pecherskii and a few of his Red Army comrades stand out for their courage and honor in the face of terror (no Russian Jews are villainized). The inmates burst through the camp gates under the heavy fire of the Ukrainian guards (that they were all Ukrainians is never mentioned) and flee in slow motion across the minefields, as their bodies pile up right and left. The film ends with the last escapee, a teenaged boy, leaving the camp, again in slow motion. The heavily forested area around the camp has been magically transformed into a vast plain. As he runs, we hear his heavy breathing, before the screen fades to black. It is painfully trite.

Sobibor’s closing titles are surprising for what they fail to explain. It is estimated that 300-400 hundred of the 600 prisoners at Sobibor burst through the gates; at least half of those died in the escape or were captured and executed by the Germans within a few hours. Of those who lived longer, all but 50 or so were either killed by Polish farmers or Home Army Polish partisans or captured by Poles and turned over to the Germans. The titles entirely omit the Polish role in the sad aftermath of the uprising, probably to placate the Polish government into allowing official Russian participation in the planned Polish commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Sobibor revolt on 14 October. If that was the idea, it failed, and the Russian response to their exclusion from the memorial events has been understandably bitter.

In closing, Khabenskii’s Sobibor must be judged as mediocre if one is inclined to be charitable (or quite appalling, if one is not), yet it garnered favorable reviews and a sizeable audience in Russia for a Russian film. As noted at the outset of this review, regardless of Sobibor’s copious flaws as a work of film art, it is nevertheless an important cultural-political artifact, the first Russian-made film to focus entirely on the Holocaust while acknowledging that Jews were the primary victims. Its novelty doubtless attracted many Russian filmgoers, but its extreme violence is sadly but almost certainly a key factor behind its box office success.

Denise J. Youngblood,
University of Vermont

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Works Cited

Arad, Yitzhak. 1999. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gershenson, Olga. 2013. The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Hicks, Jeremy. 2012. First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-1946. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Sobibor, Russia, 2018
Color, 118 minutes
Director: Konstantin Khabenskii
Screenplay: Konstantin Khabenskii, Aleksandr Adabashian, Andrei Nazarov, Anna Chernakova
Director of Photography: Ramunas Greicius
Composer: Kuzma Bodrov
Film Editor: Iurii Troiankin
Production Designer: Jurgita Gerdvilaite
Art Directors: Ainis Jankauskas, Sigita Simkunaite
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Christopher Lambert, Mariia Kozhevnikova, Michalina Olszanska, Philippe Reinhardt, Maximilian Dirr, Mindaugas Papinigis, Wolfgang Cerny
Producers: Almira Aynulova, Sergei Bespalov, Gleb Fetisov, Il’ia Vasil’ev, Mariia Zhuromskaia

Konstantin Khabenskii: Sobibor (2018)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2018

Updated: 2018