Sobibór. 2018. Directed by Konstantin Khabenskiy. Screenplay by Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein, & Ilya Vasiliev.
Starring Konstantin Khabenskiy, Christopher Lambert, Mariya Kozhevnikova, Michalina Olszanska, Philippe Reinhardt, Maximilian Dirr, Mindaugas Papinigis, & Wolfgang Cerny.
ArtBox Company / Cinema Production Producer Center / Fetisoff Illusion / Visual Arts
Unrated. 110 minutes.
Drama / History / War
Just as the history of slavery looms over America and the horrors Indigenous peoples experienced in the residential school system haunts Canadian history, so does the Holocaust remain an eternal stain on Germany. World War II, in particular the Holocaust, is no stranger to film and television, having offered plenty of compelling material for both non-fiction and fictional stories. Schindler’s List and Claude Lanzmann’s epic nine-and-a-half hour documentary Shoah are two of the most well-known titles. Father Gore’s personal favourites are the powerful half-hour short documentary called Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog) by Alain Resnais, the recent Son of Saul, and 1974’s disturbing, controversial drama The Night Porter.
Actor Konstantin Khabenskiy has used his feature film debut as director, Sobibór, to tackle a WWII story little known to many Westerners: a Jewish revolt by prisoners held at the Sobibór extermination camp near Wlodawa, Poland. Khabenskiy himself plays Alexander Pechersky, who led the revolt. Pechersky went on to live until 1990, however, he was harassed for years and prevented from testifying at international trials for Nazi war crimes, including the Eichmann Trial. What Pechersky and many other Jews who organised the revolt did would not only help liberate soon-to-be Holocaust victims— 50 people were able to avoid being recaptured after the escape— it went on to become a symbol of resistance. Their perseverance in the most brutal conditions, experiencing the dual bodily horror and emotional terror inflicted upon them by the Nazis, is an image of the human spirit’s unwillingness to be cut out at the root.
Sobibór is similar to Son of Saul in that the film doesn’t shy away from brutality. There’s a grim honesty in the attention Khabenskiy pays to depicting certain events. There’s no graphic exploitation, only an uncompromising truth. Everyone knows what went on during the Holocaust. Or, do they? Today there remains a shocking amount of gullible racists who continue to deny there ever was a Holocaust, or squabble over numbers, like ANY number of people exterminated for being Jewish would be understandable.
So, why do we have films that continue to depict the horrors of the Holocaust and slavery? Why does a film like Rhymes for Young Ghouls here in Canada expose the psychological and corporeal damage inflicted upon Indigenous communities by residential schools? Because the racist superstructure wants to use ideology to erase the lingering pain of these events, to reduce their meaning and, in turn, reduce the plight of those affected by them. We cannot look away. We cannot forget. Telling these stories through the medium of film respectfully, honestly, and with emotional power will forever be necessary— both affirming, knowing humanity will remember the heroes of these tales, and also tragically unfortunate, knowing the villains continue to be protected by those who’ve perpetuated their legacy.
“God will save us. Just don’t get in his way.”
The foreign Jews arriving at Sobibór were brought in not knowing where they were headed. Classical music played over speakers and a violinist greeted them on the platform as they exited the trains. Then, the sexes were separated, and the women were led into showers— the path to them was named Himmelstrasse (a.k.a ‘Road to Heaven’)— where they were gassed to death. At this particular camp, the showers were hooked up to a tank engine and carbon monoxide was then throttled in via the spouts. The foreign Jewish men were none the wiser.
One scene shows a man finding his wife’s engagement ring in a pile of jewellery. This is symbolic of the not-knowing in the camp, a segregation from truth about what was really happening to their people. Jews were figuratively kept in the dark. Daily life was reduced to work, eat, seep, and the constant spectre of death. Somehow they stayed strong with the tiniest signs and symbols of hope, whether a ring or a note passed between them.
On the one hand, constant terror forced Jews to compartmentalise and repress their emotions. During a later scene, Pechersky and others watch as a fellow prisoner is lit on fire, alive. The stunningly disturbing part is they barely flinch. They were conditioned by violence to be emotionless. On the other hand, the smallest moments became beacons of hope illustrating how the human body can break while the human spirit is capable of withstanding nearly anything. After an especially cruel night when the Nazis throw a party and use Jews as entertainment, Pechersky and Hanna (Michalina Olszanska) lie in the wreckage of a horse cart. He tells her: “I just wanted to be a horse.” They laugh together, in spite of the night/camp’s overall abuse. Humour refuses to die.
What’s impressive is the resilience of faith and morality in the Jewish prisoners Khabenskiy explores. A scene depicts ritual punishment against Jews showing any signs of their religious faith when a Nazi guard is angered by a prisoner refusing to drink Cognac (not kosher). This moment calls to mind other histories, such as the treatment of Indigenous peoples by the Roman Catholic Church in residential schools— beaten and tortured if they showed their Indigenous culture or spoke in their native tongue. Later, in parallel with this humiliating cruelty, one of the Jews being asked to join the revolt by his fellow prisoners doesn’t know if he can bring himself to kill a Nazi. This brief exchange shows how, in the face of such horror, even then some Jews could not sever themselves from their morals. Most of all, it delineates how far apart the Jews and Nazis exist on opposite poles of morality’s spectrum.
An especially sad part of the camps was some Jews turned violently against other Jews. This comes up in a scene with Pechersky talking to a friend about their planned revolt. They’re attacked by other prisoners looking to prevent any further executions due to escape attempts. The Nazis effectively fostered a Panopticon-like environment throughout the camps in which the prisoners started policing themselves.
There also existed a feeling of togetherness about the prisoners in the camps representative of a larger kinship between Jewish people as a whole. When a male prisoner is whipped by a guard, the Nazi counts each strike and a woman counts along by herself— as if she too received them. This image shows all of them symbolically feeling each strike, each death perpetrated against another Jew. This spirit of community continues for Jewish men and women today, in the same way it does for black and Indigenous people, or any people of colour: when a hate crime is committed, no matter where, a searing cultural pain burns them all. In the camps, this spirit served a purpose in the end by fuelling the prisoners to eventually fight back.
“And gold is stronger than death”
Part of keeping the Holocaust in perspective is not dehumanising the villains. This is not out of respect, it’s out of realism. Cultured men, not mindless sheep or monsters, were the architects of the Holocaust’s horror. We cannot afford to reduce evil men to the image of a monster because it negates the fact these men are human. Monsters cannot take responsibility— men can, and must, bear the burden of their evils.
These were men who loved the music of Richard Wagner, admired art, and enjoyed good food. They were flesh and blood. Dehumanising them into ideological boogeymen remains, to this day, an act of dangerous, wilful ignorance. It’ll never be easy to erase white nationalism or anti-Jewish thought from the social landscape. Refusing to see the human nature in the evil of Nazis— whether those in the camps or the neo-Nazis who carry the flag today— creates a blindspot in which these people thrive. Many didn’t think what the Germans under Hitler were doing was as bad as reported until after the war was over. Today, many refuse to believe there are ‘actual neo-Nazis’ until a hate crime occurs. If we can’t recognise humans are capable of terrifying evil, those who do evil things will evade detection and, ultimately, responsibility.
Murderers are not monsters, they’re men.
And that’s the most frightening thing about them.
Often the Nazis are compared to the Roman Empire. They saw the party in that light, calling themselves the Third Reich. The decadence of Nazi Germany is evident in Sobibór. The previously mentioned ‘party’ thrown by SS guards at the camp features a curious image: a Roman-style horse cart. The guards make Pechersky and other Jews pull the carts like they’re horses, using a bullwhip to make them go faster. Their mock race is an event ripped out of the Colosseum. Along with the fake race, the Nazis play classical music over loud speakers, they eat good food and drink bottles of expensive liquor, occasionally shooting a Jew to death or lashing one unconscious— a stark vision of decay with high culture juxtaposed against callousness and death.
Apart from the decadence, the Nazis were also painfully banal. Hannah Arendt, in her book about the Eichmann Trial, wrote of “the banality of evil” in Eichmann. This concept extends to the Nazi Party overall. These were regular men to the point of boredom. They were one-dimensional cardboard cutout villains. If a modern screenwriter wrote villainous characters with certain Nazi qualities, and the Nazis had never actually existed, a producer would tell them the writing’s too unbelievable.
For instance, Gustav Wagner— an infamously sadistic staff sergeant in the SS— is shown trying on jewellery confiscated from living and dead Jews at the camp. He poses wearing an enormous amount of pearls and rings, holding up his hands in a pose not unlike one you might see today on a hip hop album cover. An eerie moment illustrating how inconsequential the Nazis saw their mass extermination of a population. It further casts Wagner, and others like him, in the light of a man-child. He’s cruel, yet he doesn’t feel scary. He’s an embodiment of evil, and simultaneously he’s like the class clown in junior high who thinks his tired bigoted jokes are clever. Again, we return to Arendt, whose observations of Eichmann mirror our own understanding of Wagner’s character during this scene: “Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see this man was not a ‘monster,’ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect he was a clown.”
Very tough to enjoy a film like Sobibór in the traditional sense, even if it’s an incredible piece of work. Nobody can truly ENJOY the act of vicariously experiencing the Holocaust through art. That being said, Khabenskiy has told an important story, and told it well. The best stories about WWII and the Holocaust dive deeper below the surface of to look at history’s human core. The film’s screenplay is raw and unflinching while never becoming exploitational, offering more of the emotional than the visceral in its imagery.
The Holocaust was a medieval carnival of torture. Jews who made it out alive were forever left with physical and psychological scars that would never fade. Father Gore is not Jewish and can’t pretend to know what it’s like for them, nor can he ever comprehend how intergenerational trauma has gone on to affect their families. What’s obvious, looking at the state of America, Canada, and England in 2019, is we— the Gentiles— can never allow the memories of Nazi Germany to escape our consciousness. Things have gotten bad enough as it is without society collectively forgetting what can happen when fascism rises to its highest point.
It isn’t only about the evil. When we remember those who were cruelly abused and killed in concentration camps, we likewise cannot forget those who fought to liberate themselves and others. The film is far more about resilient Jewish strength and spirit than it is about the cowardly and murderous ideology of Nazis.
See Sobibór. Absorb its messages. Teach your children about hate, in all its forms.
Then, teach them to love.