They disembarked their trains — some of them, the foreigners — well-heeled, serenaded by a string quartet, assured their luggage would arrive later — “Everything will be safe.”
German officers in their crisp, grey uniforms, smiled beneath the red swastika banners and only deigned to hide their contempt once the train and its better off passengers arrived.
Jewish clerks, luggage handlers and translators hustled everyone to and fro as a public address system crackled out “Welcome to Sobibor, your new home!” announcements, a place where they would “work diligently and live in dignity.
Of course, the kapos — the clerks doing the lying for the Germans — knew the truth. So did any local and most Poles sent to Sobibor. Nobody here gets out alive.
Just enough people knew the truth and lived long enough to do something about it to ensure Sobibor’s place in Holocaust history, the death camp that gave birth to the largest uprising by Jewish concentration camp detainees of World War II.
Actor and director Konstantin Khabenskiy of the “Night Watch” movies brings us a Russian-backed film of that uprising and mass escape, conventional in its telling but still delivering a visceral, heart-pounding finish.
Khabenskiy also headlines “Sobibor,” starring as Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky, a Soviet soldier transferred there after a failed escape attempt in Minsk. He arrives in Poland with little more than contempt for his fellow inmates, praying “cowards” awaiting death “like livestock led to slaughter.”
But don’t be so hasty, survivor Leo (Dainius Kazlauskas) cautions. “We’re trying to survive to get our revenge,” he says (in subtitled Russian. The Polish, Hebrew and German in the film is also subtitled). They have been organizing. They just lost their leader, a veteran of the Dutch Navy. They might follow a soldier like him. If he can prove he’s Jewish.
“We need a Moses!”
Striking new arrival Selma (Mariya Kozhevnikova) is warned to “take whatever work you can get” by camp veteran Chaim (Fabian Kociecki), which she does.
Others — scores of them — we see herded nude into a “shower,” an officious guard totaling their number on a ledger, locking the door and turning on a valve that opens up the exhaust gas from a huge engine that Sobibor used to murder 250,000 people or more.
Young apprentice jeweler Shlomo (Ivan Zlobin) reassures his little sister and family that he’ll be all right, but that they’ll be safer together. He doesn’t know.
We also meet the jeweler Jakob (Joshua Rubin), assured “We are immortal” by a fellow jeweler on arrival, relieved that means he has “work” and can look after his wife, horrified when he comes across his dead wife’s wedding band among the loot the Nazis have taken from prisoners before directing them to “the showers.”
Perhaps Khabenskiy and his trio of screenwriters didn’t need to treat us to a “Holocaust 101” refresher course. We’ve seen nude women packed into a room, gassed to death. We know about the gruesome architecture of mass murder, the ghoulish practice of pulling gold fillings from the dead bodies, the officious and contagious efficiency and sadism of ordinary Germans (passed on to collaborators in many countries they occupied).
But as the world lurches towards new versions of fascist totalitarianism, with bigotry and anti-Semitism blinking into the cold light of day, a little reminder of what human beings are capable of doing to each other is always a good thing.
The Nazis are the usual cadre of psychopaths, drunks, bullies and martinets. Christopher Lambert plays the haunted, deranged camp commandant, Karl Frenzel. Wolfgang Cerny, Mindaugas Papinigis, Maximilian Dirr and Philippe Reinhardt, playing his subordinates, have the sicker and showier roles. Lambert’s German is dubbed, here.
Khabenskiy loses himself in characters like Sasha’s would-be love interest (Felice Jankell), the adorable kid (Kacper Olszewski) whose eager-to-please/desperate-to-survive obsequiousness will come in handy later, and traffics too readily in the tropes of Holocaust movies. The orgy of violence staged by the guards and officers (who knew the camp was slated to be closed ahead of the advancing Russians) is so excessive only Caligula could appreciate it.
But his “Night Watch/Day Watch” years with director Timur Bekmambetov taught him to make the most of the night scenes, giving the extermination camp a haunting beauty and menace — guard towers and the occasional fence post sitting in pools of light.
He expertly sets up the planning scenes, capturing the impromptu haste with which those plans had to be implemented and the leap each conspirator had to make, from resigned victim to cold-blooded killer, for this to come off.
And he stages the revolt, its chaos rendered more sensible by judicious use of slow-motion, with fury and brio.
There was a fine TV movie, “Escape from Sobibor,” on this subject in the ’80s, and all this “Sobibor” (opening March 29) has on that Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer film is the graphic violence, heightened sense of horror and odd moment of poetry Khabenskiy brings to the story.
Still, it’s a sturdy enough story that it can withstand a little dilly-dallying, and the visceral finale is as heart-pounding as we need this story — when the lambs rose up against their slaughterers — to be.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskiy, Christopher Lambert, Mariya Kozhevnikov, Michalina Olszanska, Maximillian Dirr
Credits:Directed by Konstantin Khabenskiy, script by Anna Chernakova, Michael Edelstein and Ilya Vasiliev. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:50