October 11, 2001
>One Man's Daring Escape From the Final Solution
>n 1979, while he was making "Shoah," his nine-hour documentary about the
Nazi attempt to obliterate the Jews of Europe, Claude Lanzmann filmed a
long interview with Yehuda Lerner, a survivor of the Sobibor camp in
eastern Poland. The story that Mr. Lerner had to tell — about a
carefully planned, surprisingly successful uprising of camp inmates against
their would-be murderers — was not included in "Shoah." The purpose
of that film was not to document exceptional acts of mercy and bravery, but
rather the more normative experience of inhumanity, terror and death.
>More recent films about the Holocaust, both documentary and fictional,
have preferred to tell uplifting stories of hope in the face of evil. As if
to protect his latest film, "Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.," which is
based on Mr. Lerner's recollections, from being taken out of context, Mr.
Lanzmann concludes with a recitation, accompanied by an on-screen list, of
the trainloads of Jews that arrived in Sobibor during the 18 months of its
operation. About 250,000 people died in the camp, which was divided into
two units, one for slave labor and one for extermination. They came
primarily from Poland, the Netherlands and the Soviet Union. 
>Mr. Lerner was a teenager when he arrived in September 1943. He had been
deported from the Warsaw ghetto and had managed to escape from eight
different camps. "What did you tell the Germans who captured you?" Mr.
Lanzmann asks him, wondering why Mr. Lerner's captors did not kill him on
the spot. "The truth," he replies with a shrug, unable to explain his
extraordinary luck. Eventually Mr. Lerner was taken to Minsk, where he was
interned with a group of Soviet prisoners of war, all Jews, who impressed
him with their discipline and sense of order. It was these soldiers —
in particular an officer named Alexander Petchersky — who organized
the revolt of Sept. 14.
>Like "Shoah," "Sobibor," which will be shown at the New York Film Festival
tonight and is to open at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas tomorrow, derives some of
its power from the straightforwardness of its technique. In the first half,
Mr. Lerner's voice is accompanied by color film of the landscape he
describes. We see Warsaw and Minsk as bustling modern cities where the past
is visible in the shape of monuments.
>"Museums and monuments," Mr. Lanzmann argues in a director's note that
appears on screen at the start of the film, "institute oblivion as much as
remembrance." His own documentary method, juxtaposing the voices of
survivors with images of train tracks, quiet forests and dilapidated,
silent camp buildings, brings the experience as close to the present as
possible — which means that it also takes account of the unbridgeable
chasm between the present and the past.
>In his note Mr. Lanzmann writes that "justice must be done to a dual
legend, the one claiming that the Jews allowed themselves to be led to the
gas chambers without any premonitions or suspicions and that their death
was comfortable, and the other claiming that they put up no resistance to
their executioners." Mr. Lerner makes clear that nobody expected to leave
Sobibor alive. Two previous uprisings had failed, and the Red Army officers
immediately set about forming a committee to plan a third one.
>Nothing Hollywood might devise could be as nerve-rackingly suspenseful as
the second half of "Sobibor," in which Mr. Lanzmann simply trains his
camera on the face of Mr. Lerner, a stout, middle-aged man with bushy
sideburns and a slight twitch in one corner of his mouth, and lets him
talk. Mr. Lerner speaks Hebrew, which is translated first into French by an
off-camera interpreter and then into the English of the subtitles, but as
his story gathers momentum, the language barrier seems to drop away.
>It helps that Mr. Lerner is an engaging raconteur who still seems amazed
at the facts of his own life. Recalling how he killed a German guard with
an axe, he says, "I split his skull completely, as if I'd been a
specialist, doing it all my life." And then he turns pale with an emotion
he identifies, when pressed, as joy, but which seems like something
unspeakably more complex. 
>And similarly, the feelings that this simple, deeply intelligent movie
produces — of horror, admiration, hope and grief — are as hard
to name as they are to dispel.
>SOBIBOR, OCTOBER 14, 1943, 4 P.M.
>Written and directed by Claude Lanzmann; in Hebrew and French, with
English subtitles; directors of photography, Caroline Champetier and
Dominique Chapuis; edited by Chantal Hymans and Sabine Marnou; released by
New Yorker Films. Running time: 95 minutes. This film is not rated. Shown
tonight at 6 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, as part of the 39th New
York Film Festival. 
>WITH: Yehuda Lerner. 

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