100% All-Natural Composition
No Artificial Intelligence!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

20 years ago tonight came the ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR

For one person to escape from a Nazi concentration camp was daring.

For three to escape was incredible.

For three hundred to escape was impossible.

Nothing is impossible.

So read the tagline of the full-page ad in the April 12th, 1987 issue of Parade that promoted that night's broadcast on CBS of Escape from Sobibor, starring Alan Arkin and Rutger Hauer.

Twenty years ago tonight came the premiere of what is perhaps the greatest movie about the Holocaust ever made. Escape from Sobibor is about the only thing of its kind that ever occurred during World War II: a mass escape by Jewish prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp. Sobibor was one of the primary extermination facilities in eastern Poland, with estimates ranging from as low as 250,000 to as high (according to one Sobibor survivor) as one million who were gassed to death there. On October 14 in 1943 several of the Jewish inmates, who had been making clandestine plans for months, secretly murdered most of the camp's S.S. officers without raising any alarm. What happened after that during the evening roll call could best be summed up by what Leon Feldhendler (Arkin's character) screamed to his fellow captives: "God is with you! Now let nothing stop you!" Over three hundred Jewish prisoners stormed the gates, killing many of the German and Ukrainian guards in the process, and escaped into the forests surrounding Sobibor.

It's a very good movie. Made all the more enthralling if you know, based on what the actual survivors who are depicted in this movie have said, that practically everything you see in this movie actually took place. Arkin's Feldhendler is the de-facto leader of the Jewish inmates, trying to encourage his people to keep their spirits up in spite of their surroundings. Several Jews make escape attempts early in the movie. After one such attempt, the Nazi commandant makes a declaration: for every Jew who escapes Sobibor, more will be killed in his place. Thus, if Feldhendler and his associates want to plan an escape, it must be one for every Jew in Sobibor. Everyone has to be given a chance. They are about to abandon any hope of escape, because to pull that off is, without question, impossible. After all, these are but simple people - with no training or experience - that would be setting themselves up against the most elite of the Nazi ranks. If they are to do this, then they are going to need someone with a brilliant military mind to make it happen.

Then one day, as if an answer to their prayers, a contingent of captured Soviet soldiers - all Jews - is brought to the camp. Their leader is Alexander "Sasha" Pechersky (played by Rutger Hauer), a man who wrote music before the war. Feldhendler tells Pechersky of the challenge facing them.

From that point on, Escape from Sobibor is not only an inspiring story about hope and defiance, but a classic tale about leadership in the most trying of circumstances. It is sheer pleasure to watch Pechersky delegate tasks to his fellow inmates ("Can you make knives?" "How many?" "As many as you can make.") in preparation for their day of liberation. When it's found out that the camp commander will be gone for several days, Feldhendler and Perchersky realize that if they are to act, then the time is now.

This is a brutal movie. Definitely a lot more so than most anything else made for TV at that time. Watching these Jews systematically butcher their Nazi captors one by one in various locations throughout the camp is to this day one of the most endearing things I've ever seen produced for television. There's plenty of investment into the story and when the point of no return comes, there's payoff in spades. Indeed, the escape scene may be one of the most thrilling ever put to film. Rutger Hauer went on to win a Golden Globe for Supporting Actor (Television) for his portrayal of Pechersky.

There are two versions of Escape from Sobibor: one is the "standard" edition but there is also one that adds substantially several more minutes to the story. I've seen both, and prefer the longer one more. But to date you can only find the shorter version on DVD. I'm hoping that someday, whoever owns the rights to it will release the longer cut on DVD. Of all the movies about the Holocaust that I know of, this is the one that I would recommend as must-see viewing in a college classroom... and many high school ones for that matter.

You can still find the "standard" edition on Amazon.com and a few other places though. And you can even watch the full movie online in a few places on the Web. Click here to watch Escape from Sobibor on CinemaNow. You must be using Internet Explorer for it to work, and hit "Yes" then "Play" when prompted. It doesn't cost anything to watch it by the way.