Why a gory Holocaust film is a blockbuster in Russia


(JTA) — A decade ago, relatively few people in Russia even knew about the existence of Sobibor, the smallest-scale facility of the six killing centers that the Nazis built in occupied Poland.

This relative obscurity persisted for decades in Russia, Israel and beyond despite the fact that the camp is tied to a dramatic story of heroism: In 1943, Russian inmates led a successful escape, one of only two such occurrences during the Holocaust (the other happened that same year in Treblinka).

Following the Sobibor uprising, however, the Nazis razed the camp so that little more than a forest clearing remained in the remote area where SS guards and Ukrainians murdered 250,000 Jews. This is why Sobibor receives a fraction of the visitor traffic observed at the Auschwitz or Majdanek camps, whose gas chambers and other structures remained intact and were turned into museum exhibits.

Ten years on, though, Sobibor has made a huge splash in Russia thanks to a government-led commemoration campaign that culminated this year, the uprising’s 75th anniversary, with last week’s commercial release of Russia’s largest-ever Holocaust movie production.

Featured prominently in national media, the war drama “Sobibor” is a box-office hit with $2 million in ticket sales — an unprecedented success for its genre in Russia, especially for a movie unsuitable for children.

The two-hour Russian-language film — a multi-million dollar production with state funding — features Konstantin Khabenskiy, one of Russia’s best-known actors. It has an international cast and convincing visuals but its main significance is that it goes into finer detail and nuance than any feature film made before about the camp, according to Michael Edelstein, a lecturer at Moscow State University and the film’s scientific consultant.

Visually, the film is one of the goriest of its kind. Its opening scene features the death throes of hundreds of naked women in a gas chamber. There’s a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions.

Extras being filmed in Lithuania for “Sobibor.” (Courtesy of Rosiya Segondiya)

“It’s a very difficult film to watch,” Rabbi Alexander Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, told JTA.

The film also goes further than any previous production — including the 1987 British television film “Escape from Sobibor” staring Alan Arkin — in exploring the internal politics within the camp. In the days before the uprising, its conspirators suffered violence and feared betrayal by other inmates — including kapo, Jews who worked for the Nazis as camp police.

Whereas the 1987 film ignores this issue, it is ever-present in the Russian production, informing at every step the viewer’s interpretation of the actions and dilemmas of the film’s main protagonist, the partisan and Red Army veteran Alexander Pechersky, who led the revolt and whose character is played by Khabenskiy.

The film even features one scene of a kapo practicing the Nazi salute – a reference to Herbert Naftaniel, a German Jew nicknamed Berliner. According to testimonies from Sobibor, Naftaniel was crueler to inmates than the German and Ukrainian guards. It also shows the hostility harbored by some Russian Jewish soldiers toward other Jews, whom they call “kikes” in the film.

Under Pechersky, a dozen-odd men and a few women eliminated the Nazi chain of command by stealthily assassinating several camp officers, who were lured into a trap with promises of exquisite possessions taken from victims. With weapons they stole, the rebels then engaged the watchtower guards as more than 300 people exited through the main gate. Only 57 escapees, including Pechersky, avoided being murdered in the subsequent manhunt.

“Sobibor” explores the Nazi camp’s internal politics. (Courtesy of Rosiya Segondiya)

Eleven German officers were killed in the uprising.

But while these acts of bravery at Sobibor highlight the rebels’ resourcefulness and determination, they and the movie also underscore how Jews’ relative obedience at Sobibor created total complacency among the Nazis — who were famously vigilant, disciplined and effective in countering threats by enemies, partisans and even prisoners of war.

“A body has two hands, and so does this story,” said Edelstein. “On the one hand, there was the dehumanization and mechanized killing. On the other, the heroism. And I think Sobibor is remembered for the heroism thanks to the rebels’ actions.”

The film also addresses perceived passivity, exploring the grinding effect of hard labor, hunger and trauma as well as the elaborate deception employed by the Nazis to trick the condemned into submissively entering the gas chambers, which the killers said were showers. Victims’ suitcases were tagged and they received slips to recover them. Separation between the sexes was “temporary,” they were told.

Pechersky, a Red Army prisoner of war who was transferred to Sobibor because he was Jewish, realized within a few days that no one was meant to survive the camp, he said in testimonies. But others wholeheartedly believed they were about to be resettled.

Some of the most poignant findings from Sobibor were discovered last year: name plaques that five Dutch-Jewish families had brought with them to Sobibor to install on their new mailboxes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referenced Sobibor’s dual legacy for Jews during a speech in January that he gave in a joint appearance Russian President Vladimir Putin at a commemoration ceremony for the Sobibor Uprising at Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

“There were those who thought that [Sobibor] was our history’s rock bottom, when in fact it marked the opposite: Our will to never surrender to those who want to destroy us,” Netanyahu said. “That moment more than any other marked the turning point in the history of the Jewish people.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, May 9, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

But this modern view was not universally shared in Israel in the years immediately after the Holocaust. In celebrating Holocaust-era bravery, authorities highlighted the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and other cases that did not carry Sobibor’s complex mixture of heroism, passivity and treachery.

For decades, “the Sobibor Uprising was barely known in Israel,” according to Yoram Haimi, the Israeli archeologist who in recent years unearthed parts of the gas chamber at the camp. The only commemoration it had was when survivors’ families gathered each year on the uprising’s anniversary at the home of Dov Freiberg for a dinner party that featured neither speeches nor ceremonies, he said.

Meanwhile, the Sobibor Uprising did not meet the Soviet Union’s standards for heroism either, according to Edelstein, the film’s scientific consultant.

“Pechersky couldn’t be celebrated as a hero not only because he was a Jew, but also because he let himself be taken prisoner. Celebrating him was out of the question” during communism, Edelstein said.

But that changed in Russia following Haimi’s archeological excavations, which drew intense interest in international media.

The process that led to the film’s creation began with a visit to Israel in 2012, Edelstein said. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who is Michael’s brother, proposed the two countries cooperate on commemorating the 75th anniversary of the uprising.

Konstantin Khabenskiy reviewing footage on the film set of “Sobibor” in 2017. (Courtesy of Rosiya Segondiya)

Russian authorities have since facilitated the establishment in Moscow of a foundation devoted to commemorating and researching the uprising. They also bestowed posthumous honors on uprising leaders and invited descendants of the Sobibor uprising leaders to official events in Moscow – including the annual May 9 military parade celebrating Nazi Germany’s defeat. Schools have been named for Pechersky in Russia and monuments built in his honor for the first time in decades.

Haimi, the archeologist, describes this as a cynical “appropriation” by Russian authorities of the story.

Pechersky, who died in 1990, was “never recognized by the Russians. Only now they reinvent this story, make it their own and recast him as some Red Army hero,” Haimi said. “He did what he did as a Jew trying to survive, not for Mother Russia.”

The film does carry some nationalistic Russian references, including one in which Pechersky is said to have “Stalin in his heart.”

But for a state-funded movie, “Sobibor” generally treads lightly through a political minefield.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the film devotes very little attention to how Sobibor had Ukrainian guards or to the fact that many of the escapees were betrayed by Poles — aspects of the story that would mesh comfortably with the Kremlin’s campaign of vilification against those nations, where anti-Russian sentiment is rife.

In recent months, Poland and the Netherlands have worked to exclude Russia from a committee planning a new museum on the Sobibor grounds, prompting protests by Israel.

“Fortunately, the film doesn’t deal with these politicized issues,” Edelstein said. “Nor should it. The story of Sobibor is not only a Jewish story, but also a story about the best and the worst of us as human beings. Its message needs to be universal.”

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