ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR: THE 1987 AND 2018 FILMS.
ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR. (1987) DIRECTED BY JACK GOLD. STARRING RUTGER HAUER, JOANNA PACULA, ALAN ARKIN AND HARTMUT BECKER.
ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR. (2018) DIRECTED BY KONSTANTIN KHABENSKY. STARRING CHRISTOPHER LAMBERT, KONSTANTIN KHABENSKY AND FELICE JANKELL.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
Both these films are based on actual events. On the fourteenth of October 1943, an uprising occurred in the Nazi extermination camp known as Sobibor, in which a core group of prisoners killed a number of SS guards and fled the camp through the main gate, along with most of the rest of the inmates.
The group of organisers and leaders consisted of Jewish prisoners who’d been in the camp for a while, led by a quiet, unassuming man called Leon Feldhendler, and Russian Jewish POWs, led by Alexander ‘Sasha’ Pechersky.
In the 2018 film, Sasha Pechersky is so quiet and unassuming himself and so realistically dirt-covered that it took me ages to figure out just which character he is. There’s no mistaking him in the 1987 film, lol.
Here he’s played by the tall, blonde handsome Rutger Hauer, and he marches confidently into the camp with his fellow POWs about halfway through the movie and immediately starts looking for a means of escape.
Sobibor was an extermination camp, one of several employed by Nazi Germany to rid themselves of the ‘undesirables’ of Europe; mostly Jews, of whom six million died in the Second World War, but also homosexuals, Roma Gypsies, political troublemakers and insurgents, and generally people considered to be ‘enemies of the Reich.’
The ‘procedure’ for ‘receiving’ prisoners at Sobibor is well laid out in both films. A train full of hungry, thirsty terrified Jews, chug-chug-chugs into Sobibor station, to be greeted by hordes of SS men with vicious dogs on leads and scores of Sonderkommando.
These last were Jewish prisoners permitted to stay alive only because they manned the crematoria and disposed of the bodies after gassing. They were the men in the ‘striped pyjamas,’ who knew full well that their days were numbered too and that, as soon as they’d outlived their usefulness to the SS, they’d be killed also. It was a nightmarish existence.
A pretence was maintained at the station, however, that all was well and there was nothing to be at all worried about. A voice on a PA system repeats words to exactly that effect on repeat. ‘Welcome to your new lives. You will be given useful work here and will be fed and warm. The separation of men and women is only temporary. Please don’t be alarmed. You will be re-united later, once we’ve assigned you your barracks.’ An orchestra comprising prisoners and stationed on the ramp plays classical music to make the new arrivals feel at home.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that, because of outbreaks of typhus in the concentration camp system, the new inmates, the ones without useful trades who’ve all been safely stood to one side by now, will have to take a ‘shower’ first, before being integrated into the camp.
Well, that’s not so bad, murmured the new arrivals. Maybe things won’t be so bad here after all. The women and children and old folks say cheerio for now to the younger, stronger, healthier men and women left on the station ramp, and are chivvied along the forest path to the gas chambers and crematoria, never to return…
The 2018 film shows us the frightened, naked young women with their hair cut short being ushered into the gas chambers by young soldiers with guns. The heavy door clangs shut with a resounding finality.
The gas is switched on by the young man outside the door. A moment or two of puzzlement, bewilderment on the part of the women, and then they start vomiting, coughing, struggling to breathe. A powerful scene, but emotionally very hard to watch.
Both films show first the disbelief, then the anger, rage and desire for revenge in the young boys and older men who’ve survived the selection, when they first realise that their whole entire families have been murdered in the camp’s gas chambers, and they are now possibly the sole survivors.
Many of these young lads played an active part in the uprising, even killing SS men when they had to. ‘You’ve turned the Jews into killers,’ mutters one such boy in the 2018 film to the SS man he’s just killed. Killing would never have been in the natures of most of these men, but needs must when the devil drives…
The men and women who’ve survived the initial selection on the ramp are put to work at the trades that saved their lives, trades such as shoe-maker, leather worker, seamstress, tailor, jeweller, goldsmith and so on.
Other prisoners will be put to work sorting the belongings of the dead Jews. The Germans were notoriously greedy and the stuff they stole from their captives would fill, and probably have filled, several museums of remembrance.
They even took the women’s hair and stuffed mattresses and pillows with it, and one of the worst jobs of the Sonderkommando was to pull the gold teeth from the mouths of the dead with pliers. The gold was melted down, often to make trinkets for the SS. How greedy, how petty, how unnatural was that?
Even the bones that remained after cremation were used as fertiliser, to enrich the fields and crops of the Reich. How clever they must have thought themselves, these Nazis: there’s not a bit of the Jew that can’t be put to work for the Fuhrer!
Rutger Hauer as Sasha is by far the most dominant, most charismatic and most handsome (lol) character in the 1987 film. I cried when he tells Joanna Pacula (GORKY PARK, 1983), who plays his ‘pretend’ girlfriend Luka, that he can’t be with her the way she wants because he has a wife and child back home in Russia whom he loves very much.
She can’t stop loving him, though, naturally (in all fairness, you’d need a heart of stone not to love him), and the film tells us that the shirt she gives him to wear for good luck on the day of the uprising is today displayed in a war museum somewhere.
Hartmut Becker is excellent, too, in the 1987 film as the sadistic Nazi Gustav Wagner, whose cruelty to the inmates was legendary. He came up with some really nasty ways to make the inmates as a whole pay for the actions of a few escapees, and I think we can be fairly confident that, when he was found dead with a knife in his chest in Sao Paulo in 1980, it wasn’t his own hand who’d inflicted the death blow, as his solicitor tried to maintain…
Highlights in the 2018 film include the first killing of an SS man on the day of the uprising. Can a man’s face really end up looking like that? Not usually outside of horror movies…!
Also, there’s Christopher Lambert (HIGHLANDER, GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES) as war criminal Karl Frenzel rather inappropriately telling a roomful of captive Jews that he was once in love with a beautiful Jewish girl but his father put paid to the romance. Our hearts aren’t exactly bleeding for you, Frenzel, you lunatic, you.
Also, possibly the most disturbing scene in the newer film is the one in which the blind-drunk SS hold a bacchanal in front of the Jews, who’ve been kneeling on the appel-platz since roll-call, starving and exhausted.
Trigger happy, shooting indiscriminately, whipping inmates for fun, harnessing inmates to carts and racing them, boozing till they puke, Hitler’s precious SS show themselves up in this disgusting orgy of out-of-control violence to be what they really are, a loutish, drunken raggle-taggle bunch of thugs and bullies, with neither dignity nor decency.
I prefer the 1987 film because it’s got more heart, more warmth and more Rutger Hauer, but both films are well worth a watch. I’m dedicating this review to my mate Caroline, who adores Rutger Hauer, and I want to wish a happy Christmas and a happy, healthy (hopefully COVID-free!) and peaceful New Year to Caroline, Gary and all my lovely loyal readers.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO
Her debut romantic fiction novel, ‘THIRTEEN STOPS,’ is out now from Poolbeg Books.