The title of Claude Lanzmann’s “Sobibor, Oct. 14, 1943, 4 p.m.” refers to the place and time when Jewish prisoners in the Sobibor extermination camp staged a successful uprising, the only one, against their Nazi captors. The story, told to the camera by Yehuda Lerner, who took part in the revolt as a youth, has a terrible fascination that glues viewers to the screen. At the same time, audience patience is tested as Lanzmann’s painstaking questions, as detailed as a trial lawyer’s, are translated from French into Hebrew by an offscreen interpreter, then translated from Lerner’s animated Hebrew into French; saying everything twice slows the film down considerably. Still, pic’s unforgettable and should get wide coverage beginning with festivals and Jewish groups, and then spreading to world television audiences.
In this unique document, Lanzmann confutes two cliches: that the Jews had no inkling of what awaited them in the gas chambers, and that they went to their deaths without resistance. Sobibor had been mentioned in “Shoah,” Lanzmann’s 1985 marathon, landmark documentary about the Holocaust. But Lanzmann felt that Lerner’s extraordinary account deserved a film of its own.
Here he incorporates fresh location footage of Warsaw, Minsk and the small museum at Sobibor into the long interview he did with Lerner in Jerusalem in 1979. Film opens with some five minutes of scrolled text that the director reads out loud, putting the revolt in context while demanding aud’s full attention.
Lerner was 16 when he was taken from the Warsaw ghetto and sent to his first camp. The brave and resourceful boy proceeded to escape from eight different camps in six months, each time having the luck to be picked up by German soldiers and taken to another place, instead of shot. In Minsk, he lucked out again by falling into a better-condition camp for Soviet Red Army officers who were Jewish, where he was able to recover from typhus. Put on a train to Sobibor, Lerner and other prisoners were warned to get away before reaching the camp because they would be burned there. No one believed it. Lerner says they could have escaped through the hole they made in the wagon’s floor to relieve themselves. Parts of Lerner’s story have the aura of a fairy tale. When he was taken to a special part of the camp with 60 other strong men to temporarily do slave labor, they were given precious clothes and blankets. At the same time they were told they were there to die, for no one left Sobibor alive.Lerner describes the way the uprising was organized by former Jewish soldiers led by Soviet officer Alexander Petchesky. On Oct. 14, 1943, they took axes from the carpentry workshop and spread out through the workshops in pairs. On various pretexts, they made appointments with all 16 Germans running the camp to come by the workshops at 4 p.m. Lerner’s account of his own role in the uprising is incredible.
Pic closes movingly with Lanzmann reading until he is hoarse the numbers of Jews transported to Sobibor in 1942 and 1943 — a harrowing list of more than 250,000 people, read like a litany.