“Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.” is a documentary by French director Claude Lanzmann, whose title pinpoints the exact date and time for the start of the only successful uprising and escape by Jews at any Nazi extermination camp during the Holocaust.
Countering the widespread perception that 6 million European Jews went unresisting to their deaths, the Sobibor uprising, together with the Warsaw Ghetto revolt six months earlier, showed what Jews could and would do if they were aware that they were marked for extinction and had a handful of weapons.
Compared with two other Lanzmann documentaries, the monumental 9 1/2-hour-long “Shoah,” and “Tzahal,” which runs five hours, “Sobibor” is brief--only 95 minutes. But there is a psychological link between “Sobibor” and “Tzahal” (the Hebrew acronym for the Israel Defense Forces), which focused on soldiers of the Jewish state, according to the director.
Just as the SS men at Sobibor were caught off guard by the uprising because they simply could not imagine that the terrorized Jews would ever strike back, so the world was astonished in 1948 by the fighting spirit and skill of Israeli soldiers facing the armies of five Arab states.
“Yes, there is a clear connection,” says the 76-year-old Lanzmann, speaking by phone from his home in Paris. “I even dreamed of beginning ‘Tzahal’ with the story of Sobibor, but it was technically not possible.”
As in his other films, “Sobibor” applies Lanzmann’s trademark style of long, intensive, unhurried interviews with the actual participants, and uses a minimum of explanatory footage.
Here the sole protagonist is Yehuda Lerner, a man, in Lanzmann’s words, “of tireless and indomitable courage.” First caught by the Nazis in his native Warsaw when he was just 16, Lerner was sent to a forced labor camp. He escaped and in the following six months managed the incredible feat of seven more escapes. Each time, he was recaptured and sent to a different camp but, miraculously, was not executed out of hand.
“If a man wants to live, nothing is too difficult for him,” Lerner observes in the film.
Ending up in the Sobibor death camp in eastern Poland in early September 1943, Lerner was fortunate enough to fall in with a small group of Jewish combat veterans of the Soviet army. They had been segregated from other Red Army prisoners of war and knew how to use weapons.
In an hourlong uprising, timed to the minute and relying on the Germans’ obsessive punctuality, Lerner and his fellows killed 12 of the 16 SS officers and men on duty. About 365 prisoners escaped, but most were killed by the camp’s Ukrainian guards, in the surrounding minefields, or recaptured and shot. Only 47 survived the war.
Lerner, a retired police official who now lives in Jerusalem, recounts his story in Hebrew. He was interviewed by Lanzmann in 1979, during the 11-year-long preparation for “Shoah.” In the end, both the theme and length of Lerner’s testimony could not be fitted into “Shoah,” but over the years Lanzmann decided that Lerner’s story deserved a separate film.
For the new documentary, Lanzmann shot scenes of the fields of Belarus, where Lerner was initially interned, and the now weed-choked Sobibor railway station, but he retained the original 1979 interview. In his lean, disciplined style, Lanzmann shuns dramatic and by now familiar Holocaust footage of stacked corpses and starving prisoners.
Given his rigorous standards, Lanzmann has little but disdain for the continuing outpouring of feature films and docudramas on the Nazi and Holocaust eras. Nor is Lanzmann taken by the vast accumulation of testimonies by Holocaust survivors, which he deprecates as a formless “inflation of memory.”
Despite these objections, Lanzmann is certain that writers and filmmakers’ fascination with the Holocaust will continue. “This was the central event of the 20th century,” he says. “The farther we move away from it, the better we can measure its scope and magnitude. I could not have made ‘Shoah’ or ‘Sobibor’ after only 20 years had passed.”
Lanzmann feels the singularity of the Holocaust so deeply that he is reluctant to even give it a name. He explains that he was the first to use the term “Shoah,” a biblical Hebrew word meaning “catastrophe,” because “I do not understand Hebrew and this was my way of not naming it at all. If I could, I would have released the film without a name, or called it ‘The Thing.’ ”
Lanzmann serves as publisher and editor of the influential Les Temps Modernes magazine and is planning a fictional film that will not touch on the Holocaust.
The filmmaker declined a suggestion that he make a documentary about his own role in World War II, when he fought with the French partisans against the Nazi occupation force.
“It would not be very dramatic,” he protests. “I fought the Germans with weapons, but many other people did the same.”
“Sobibor” will screen today and Sunday at 10 a.m. at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood as part of the Laemmle Documentary Days series. It will be shown on consecutive weekends at 11 a.m. at the Monica 4 in Santa Monica, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Fallbrook in West Hills.