SOBIBOR, OCTOBER 14, 1943, 4 P.M.NR
Jewish camp survivor Yehuda Lerner tells filmmaker Claude Lanzmann how he, as a teenager, was taken from the Warsaw ghetto and sent to a series of extermination camps in Poland, from which he managed to escape without being shot. Finally, in September 1943, the Germans placed Lerner in Sobibor, an infamous camp where laborers always died. With a group of fellow Jews, Lerner plotted an uprising and escape, tricking and killing the German soldiers, then running from the camp into the thick woods. Miraculously, Lerner survived the ordeal, along with a handful of the others, and lived to tell the tale.
Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M. takes its precise title from Lerner's story, when he says (in a moment of dark humor) that the plan depended on the Germans' penchant for punctuality. The specificity is also important because it marks the only time Jewish prisoners were ever successful against their Nazi captors. (Other uprising attempts elsewhere failed.) Lanzmann's point to the tale is twofold: to prove that there was defiance amongst Jews in the Holocaust and to prove some Jews knew about their fate. (The more conventional, Schindler's List view has them completely passive and clueless.)
Lanzmann had considered adding Lerner's story to Shoah (the interview was shot in 1979), but he decided to make it a separate piece. One wonders why it took so long to get out, but, fortunately, Sobibor succeeds on its own as remarkable good-vs.-evil fable, thanks mainly to the charismatic Lerner, who admits he had never killed before Sobibor, but felt it was an honor to murder a Nazi.
Lanzmann adds extra dimension to the storytelling by shooting in the very locations Lerner mentions. The pastoral calm juxtaposes the violence and tension of the past events, much as Alain Resnais' Night and Fog conjoins past and present. In one especially disturbing moment, Lanzmann 'recreates' the squawking of the Sobibor geese to cover up the cries of the dying Jewish men.
Lanzmann is less successful with another modern touch: having a French translator repeat both Lanzmann's questions (in French) and Lerner's answers (in Hebrew). However nobly intentioned the technique, the results are exasperatingly slow. A simple use of alternative subtitling would have solved the problem of the multiple languages and would have cut down considerably the 'dead air' screen time.
In a more controversial move, Lanzmann decides to end the film with his own English-language reading of the numbers of victims from various cities brought to and killed in Sobibor. Some viewers might find exhausting the length of this sequence (there are a lot of cities and a lot of victims), but that is Lanzmann's point, and it is fitting that he reads the long list completely and thoroughly. Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M. is an upsetting document, but an important one.