Movies dramatizing the Holocaust play a peculiar role in memorializing history, in that the barbarism of the subject defies attempts to aestheticize it. The Russian epic “Sobibor” is actually about defiance, however: a noteworthy chapter from 1943 in which hundreds of the titular death camp’s prisoners revolted, killing Nazi guards and escaping into the surrounding Polish forest. But director-star Konstantin Khabensky’s movie suffers from that same artistic pressure, only it’s in the service of meshing the trappings of history with the rudiments of the vengeance-driven escape flick.
Indeed, how the rebellion at Sobibor happened is an inspiring, thrilling reality, a necessary corrective to the notion that Jews of the time didn’t fight back, but also, in this movie’s case, to a Russian cinema about World War II that barely acknowledged the Jewish genocide. Behind the uprising, after all, was a Jewish Red Army soldier named Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky (Khabensky), a new transfer from the Minsk ghetto. Against the wishes of prisoners who feared retaliation — a favorite terror tactic of the Nazis was randomly shooting every 10th prisoner — Pechersky organized a band of co-conspirators with a meticulously clever plan that turned the punctuality of their Nazi overseers and their greed for the possessions of prisoners against them.
Until that climactic third act, however, “Sobibor” needs to do what genre movies do: establish the horror of a place built for murdering Jews, that in only a year of operation killed 250,000. The movie opens weightily with an incoming train, well-dressed Jews disembarking with their belongings, and “Welcome to Sobibor!” blaring from loudspeakers as a call for skilled craftsmen leads some to believe they’re there to work. Meanwhile, unwitting women are led away to get showered, which gives Khabensky his first opportunity to turn killing into a cinematic set piece, resulting in a tableau of dead, naked bodies as queasy-making for its posed artfulness as for its truthfulness.
Though we’re introduced to an assortment of prisoners, for much of the running time, Khabensky struggles to individuate them as anything other than archetypes, save his own brooding hero figure. So what comes through is how man-of-action Pechersky comes to view his fellow captives less as sheep awaiting slaughter — his original assessment — than rebels waiting for a leader. (One Jewish prisoner is even given the breathless, loaded line, “We need a Moses!”)
It’s also in keeping with the movie’s outmoded theatricality that the Nazis are the scene-grabbers — snarling, clockwork sadists led by an unstable commandant (Christopher Lambert, dubbed) whose sexual pathology regarding beautiful Jewish women seems to be the only reason the screenwriters included the role of striking, and stricken-looking, redhead Selma (Mariya Kozhevnikova). The escalating awfulness culminates in a nighttime orgy of dehumanization in which blotto Nazis make Jews pull them around in carts, whipping them while shooting others. Khabensky and cinematographer Ramunas Greicius film the sequence as if we’ve stumbled upon a carnival in hell, but it’s a botched overreach. Hell was already the movie’s setting.
The escape, when it arrives, is practically a relief for its straight-ahead suspense, cathartic violence and sense of chaotic liberation. That’s when “Sobibor” — within its familiarity as a historical epic — finally plays like a potent reminder that inside this genocide could exist glorious insurgent valor. The question is whether a button-pushing movie like “Sobibor” is the ideal way to experience it. We’ve already gotten one masterpiece about the uprising: “Shoah” filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s powerful documentary “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.,” the unvarnished testimonial of escape participant Yehuda Lerner, served without newsreels or reenactments. The two movies couldn’t be more different about the use of cinema to call up the past, but we can guess what the late, great Lanzmann would have made of a big, earnest tribute like Khabensky’s. “Museums and monuments,” Lanzmann said, “institute oblivion as much as remembrance.”
In Russian, Polish and German with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Starts March 29, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills