Friday, November 1, 2013

FORGOTTEN GEM? Escape from Sobibor (1987)

                “Escape from Sobibor” was a British made-for-TV movie that appeared in 1987.  It was directed by Jack Gold and is based on a nonfiction book  by Richard Rashke.  It is based on the most successful escape from a concentration camp.  A camp survivor named Thomas Blatt served as technical advisor.  The camp was located in Poland and approximately 250,000 Jews were murdered there.

                The movie opens with three inmates cutting through the wire and making a run through the mine field surrounding the camp.  A new train arrives to waltz music. There is realistic chaos, but the Jews are in pretty good shape and there is no evidence that any died on the trip.  The “selection” occurs and most of the Jews are taken to be “disinfected”.   The expendables march off waving bye to the lucky few who have skills (seamstresses, tailors, etc.) or are adult men.   A good scene and not overly emotional.

                We are introduced to the main characters.  One of them is a new arrival who is hiding a baby.  Some of the other women in the barracks are not thrilled about this.  Another character is a man who is told what actually happened to his wife and son when they went to the “showers”.  Others get a similar revelation. 

                Life in the camp is tense.  The woman’s baby is discovered and it does not end well.  I hope that Nazi bastard gets his!  During a work detail, thirteen men escape but are soon caught.  They are ordered to select a partner to die with them or the guards will execute 50 at random.  Everyone is forced to watch.  It appears that escape attempts have severe consequences at this camp.  This causes the escape committee led by Leon Feldhendler (Alan Arkin) to adjust the escape plan to include all  600 inmates.

                The seemingly impossible plan gets juiced upon the arrival of some Soviet Jews in September, 1943.  Many of them are prisoners of war.  Their acknowledged leader is a charismatic fellow named Aleksandr Pechersky (Rutger Hauer).  He is called Sasha.  Sasha is put in contact with Leon and agrees to help with the escape.  In fact, he becomes the leader.  His developing relationship with a woman named Luka gives him an excuse to visit the Polish Jews’ barracks for plotting purposes.  The camp allows a shocking amount of socializing (which does allow for character development and dialogue).  It is decided that the only hope for success is to kill the guards and exit through the front gate.  Home-made weapons and reliable Jews are recruited to do the killing.

                The big day arrives and there are complications, naturally.  Several of the guards are lured into workshops on pretenses of measuring for boots and clothing.  The killings are appropriately amateurish.  Unfortunately, the scheme is discovered before it reaches fruition and the alarm is sounded making the front gate exit impossible.  It’s every person for himself at this point and after several moments of chaos, the leaders determine that exit through the fence and across the mine field is the only viable option.  The randomness of death is apparent as every step could be your last.  This a powerful scene, if a bit cheesy.  A postscript informs us that about 300 managed to make it into the forest.

                How accurate is the film?  I have no major complaints with any of it.  The elements that seem most likely Hollywoodized appear to be based on reality.  My research confirmed that some of the Jews shipped to this camp did not have a particularly nightmarish experience on the train.  The disposal of most of the arriving Jews was pretty standard procedure at any of the death camps.  What the movie does not show and I found interesting was Sobibor used exhaust fumes from a Soviet tank engine to do the job in the gas chamber.  It was the policy of the camp to kill one inmate for every escapee although I could not determine if they chose who would be murdered with them.  Let us assume technical advisor Blatt vetted this. 

                The main characters were real people.  Pechersky was an above average Soviet soldier before his capture and he did have a strong personality.  When he first arrived at the camp he got a lot of cred for standing up to one of the more sadistic guards.  He did have a relationship with a woman named Luka, but claimed it was just platonic.  She did not survive the minefield.  Surprisingly, the camp had a reputation for allowing an amazing amount of socializing.  Feldhendler is accurately depicted as the leader of the Polish Jews.  The breakout is essentially as shown.  Eleven S.S. guards were killed as well as an unknown number of Ukrainian guards.  They did have to exit through the minefield with results as reenacted.

                The film ends at the right moment for entertainment purposes because what happened after was not very positive.  Pechersky led about fifty survivors in the forest.  He and the few in the party who were also Soviet soldiers hatched a plan to sneak into the local town to get food.  They took most of the groups’ weapons and then did not come back.  Pechersky later claimed that it was every man for himself.  The movie conveniently does not mention that the vast majority of the 300 were rounded up in the manhunt and were executed along with all the inmates who did not get out of the camp.  As a matter of fact, the camp was bulldozed and trees were planted on the site after the incident.  Many of the successful escapees died after joining partisan groups.    Only about 60 survived the war.  Feldhendler hid in the city of Lublin and ironically was murdered at the very end of the war.  Pechersky survived the war, no surprise there. 

If we can just get through this fence, then
cross the minefield, then get through the woods,
then escape the man hunt, then survive the war ...
                “Escape from Sobibor” is no “Schindler’s List” but it is one of the better members of the Holocaust subgenre.  It deserves a substantial amount of credit for covering a significant event that is not well known.  Most Holocaust films depict the passivity of the Jews.  It is exhilarating to see them shown fighting back.  People need to know that there was a successful escape (actually there were two).  The movie does a service to history and the strict adherence to what actually happened is an added bonus.

                As entertainment goes, the film is not great.  This is mainly due to the made-for-TV budget.  The camp set is satisfactory, but not memorable.  The cinematography and score are average.  The strengths are in the acting and characterizations.  Hauer and Arkin are very good.  Hauer won the Golden Globe for Supporting Actor.  The cast is fine, if basically B-List.  You do care about the characters and there are some poignant deaths.  The S.S. are appropriately heinous.  The Jews are courageous.

                In conclusion, “Escape from Sobibor” is a must see for anyone interested in the Holocaust.  It covers a unique event that should be better known.  Film can sometimes play an important role in bringing history to the masses.  As much as I complain about cinema abusing that power, it is fair to emphasize the times cinema gets things right.

grade =  B+            


  1. This sounds not bad at all. I've got a novel called Sobibor. I wonder on what they focus. I hadn't heard of this event. No wonder they stopped the story when they did. The real ending is not Hollywood material. I like Rutgr Hauer, that alone would make me want to see it and, as you know, I^m interested in the sub genre.

    1. Who wrote the novel. I'd like to check on it. The handling of the Pechersky character reminds me of "Defiance".

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.