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Escape From Sobibor
cast: Alan Arkin, Rutger Hauer, Joanna Pacula, Simon Gregor, and Hartmut Becker

director: Jack Gold

145 minutes (15) 1987
Network DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Based upon a historical novel by Richard Rashke, Escape From Sobibor is a TV film that tries to present the truth about the Holocaust in a way that would prove popular and accessible to mainstream TV audiences. And therein lies the problem...

Without wanting to dredge up memories of John Huston and Robert Riger's football-based POW film Escape To Victory (1981), Escape To Sobibor is a film of two halves. The film opens with the chosen Jews of Sobibor preparing to receive a new trainload of 'deportees'. The Sobibor Jews are wearing smart blue overalls and there is classical music playing. The Jews are helped off the cattle trucks and sifted for people with useful skills. A few with useful skills step forward, a few others quick enough to realise that they can learn to mend shoes do too. The others are informed that they are at Sobibor to work and that, because of a typhus epidemic, they are to be escorted to a shower block before being reunited with their families.

Needless to say, we do not see any of these people ever again. All we see is an omnipresent pillar of black smoke from behind some trees and an eerie orange glow at night. This mysterious fire is not initially explained. Indeed, for the first half hour of the film, the film sticks quite closely to the perceptions of the newly arrived chosen Jews. It portrays a world full of strict rules, brutal overlords and ceaseless toil but the families of the chosen Jews are said to be working in other camps. This is until one of the chosen Jews is sent to run an errand to one of Sobibor's other camps and he sees lines of naked Jews being taken into gas chambers and a naked Jewish child being chased down by Alsatians. This prompts the newly arrived Schlomo (Simon Gregor) to grab old lag Leon (Alan Arkin) and demand to know how these prisoners can spend their nights dancing and making love while their families lie dead somewhere. Leon responds that they would gain nothing by dying noble deaths. He then goes on to mention that he is planning an escape.

At this point Russian POW Sascha (Rutger Hauer) arrives and the film transforms from a family-friendly Schindler's List (1993) into a low-rent version of The Great Escape (1963), as the Jews and the Russians work on a plan that will allow all 600 of the camp's prisoners to escape at once thereby eliminating the risk of bloody reprisals. Once the decision is made to go, the prisoners set about luring various members of the SS to secluded spots where they can be killed while other prisoners steal weapons: the idea being to kill all the guards and then walk out the front gate. However, not wanting to risk their luck, the prisoners decide instead to make a run for it en masse with most of the guards still alive, braving the mine fields, machine guns and barbed-wire fences. The film's conclusion informs us merrily that of the 600 prisoners, 300 managed to escape from the camp.

As a film in two halves, it only seems fair to review Escape From Sobibor in terms of its two distinct sections.

The opening section annoyed me because I felt that they downplayed the inhumanity of the Nazis. For example, when the Jews are taken off the cattle trucks they are all wearing clean clothes and are quite capable of walking. In truth, Jews transported in cattle trucks frequently spent days locked in with no food or water as they were transported en masse from occupied western countries to death camps in eastern Europe. This means that when they were let out of the trucks they would frequently be dehydrated, malnourished and ankle-deep in their own filth. Escape From Sobibor suffers for the fact that it was made at a time when mainstream popular audiences were still being spared depictions of the more gruesome details of the Holocaust.

As a result, Sobibor feels a lot more like a POW camp than the hearts of darkness portrayed in Schindler's List or Billy Wilder's infamously stomach-churning 1945 documentary Death Mills (the film which brought to the world's attention the fact that the SS in Buchenwald kept shrunken heads, sofas stuffed with human hair and lampshades made of tattooed human skin). Rather than force-feeding unpleasantness to its audience, Escape From Sobibor tries to condense the unpleasantness and deliver it in one focused scene in which a young boy uncovers the truth about the camp. The scene is well shot and the scoring is perfect but the scene works more by implication than by daring to actually show what went on in these camps. We do not see any corpses. We do not see anyone being killed. We just see people going into a shower block and hear a lot of screaming. I chose to review this film because I had vague memories of seeing it on TV the first time round and I could have sworn that the TV version showed the pink bodies being piled up onto carts. There is an uncut version of the series floating about on Region 1 DVD but this version professes to be longer than that version so it may just be that my memory filled in the film's gaps. Either way, the film's tasteful refusal to show the real horrors of the Holocaust makes it feel strangely of its time and a little too polite to do the job it so clearly wants to do, namely show a mainstream audience the horrors of the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective. Unfortunately, the film's more traditional second half does not fare much better.

Rutger Hauer and Alan Arkin make great work of sneaking about formulating plans whilst others secretly make knives and axes but despite all the sneaking, the film completely fails to convey any sense of danger or urgency in the prisoners' activities. Indeed, rather than a tense race-against-the-clock to kill as many Nazis as possible before signalling a mass run for the exits, the film portrays the prisoners casually killing Nazis left right and centre without anyone coming close to working out what is going on. Sadly, rather than playing up the thriller elements, director Jack Gold decided to focus instead upon the personal element of the violence by allowing each of the major characters to exact a pound of flesh by killing a Nazi they particularly hate. Unfortunately, with such a large cast and an opening half devoted not so much to the personalities of the camp as to the brutality of Nazis in general, Gold fails to imbue these acts of revenge with much dramatic power. Faced with a state that is murdering people on an industrial scale, knifing a Nazi because he whipped you seems like quite a petty thing to do. This raises another problem with the film.

Escape From Sobibor is morally quite un-ambitious. What I mean by this is that it wants us to know that the Nazis were bad but it is quite content to leave it at that. As a result, the questionable morality of the Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in order to save their own skins is never properly dealt with. When one character protests he is essentially slapped down and told to shut up, and he's told that for the survivors every day is a torture. While undoubtedly true, this feels like a rather glib response.

Similarly, the prisoners' decision to prepare a mass escape is prompted by the fact that when 13 prisoners try to escape, the Nazis respond by killing them and 13 'partners'. Arkin's character declares that they "cannot leave hundreds behind to be slaughtered." It is, it would appear, a question of mathematics. However, while the film tells us that 300 people escaped during the uprising, it does not tell us that all but between 50 and 70 prisoners were recaptured and killed. So rather than having a small group escape and a certain percentage of the camp be killed in response, the leaders of the uprising effectively engineered a situation whereby 90 percent of the camp was sacrificed so that the remaining 10 percent could escape.

The problem is that while Escape From Sobibor acknowledges the moral problems raised by trying to survive the Holocaust, it gives only glib feel-good answers. When compared to a more recent work such as Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters, this makes Escape From Sobibor feel simplistic and childish in its moral posturing.

Escape From Sobibor is not a bad film, it is just an intensely simplistic one. It has some interesting ideas, it has some decent performances and there's a well-shot final scene in which hundreds of Jews rush the fences but I cannot help but feel that there are films that deal with the Holocaust in a more effective manner. Wilder's Death Mills shows us what the Nazis did. Frank Pierson's Conspiracy (2001) dramatised the Wannsee conference and showed us the bloodless and inhuman way that decisions about the Holocaust were made. Max Ophuls' The Sorrow And The Pity (1969) showed us the anti-Semitism of western Europe that made the Holocaust possible. Compared to films of such awesome power, Escape From Sobibor cannot help but feel like a silly but harmless little adventure film.

DVD extras are a set of stills and a mute version of the film's opening scene.

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