Konstantin Khabensky’s 2018 film Sobibór is one of the most recent Russian attempts to publicly tell the story of Alexander Pechersky, the leader of the revolt at the Nazi death camp. This production, funded by the Ministry of Culture, was a significant development in Russia’s memory of Sobibór because, despite the fact that Pechersky was a Soviet citizen, for a long time his bravery could not be acknowledged. In the post-war Soviet Union, the state was reluctant to highlight Pechersky’s suffering as a Jew and had concerns that prisoners of war had been “contaminated” by the Nazi enemy (Polian, p. 124).
Within the Russian Federation, Sobibór captured a broader context of engagement in the 2010s, with both the state and the public commemorating Pechersky’s heroism. These commemorative activities have included: the release of a documentary film entitled Leitenant Pecherskii iz Sobibora (Lieutenant Pechersky of Sobibór) by filmmaker Leonid Mlechin in 2013; the unveiling of a monument to Pechersky in his hometown, Rostov-on-Don; and the inclusion of the history of the uprising in the Russian school curriculum in 2014.
Alexander Pechersky (third from left) and other former Sobibór prisoners circa 1970. (Photo in the public domain)
According to the film’s director, Konstantin Khabensky, by the time he joined the production, there were three or four scripts under consideration, from which he created his own version. Regarding his own personal involvement in the film, “Khabensky, a successful actor (best known outside of Russia for the sci-fi vampire films ‘Night Watch’ and ‘Day Watch’) and respected for humanitarian work, decided that portraying Pechersky should also be his directorial debut ‘because it was time in my professional life to make a statement.’”
It is not yet clear where Khabensky sought inspiration from for his film. However, when asked what differentiated his film from Escape from Sobibór, Khabensky argued that:
“The Hollywood "Sobibór" is a different movie, more like an action and detective movie. Our producers are more daring. They gave me carte blanche 100 percent. We started from the experiences and destinies of people, we staged scenes of murder only where we couldn't do without them. Our Sobibór is not a popcorn story. This does not mean that popcorn cannot be sold at the entrance to the cinema. But if people stop crunching by the tenth minute, it means that people are involved in what is happening on the screen.”
The film opens with the arrival of a train bringing Jews and Soviet Prisoners of War to the death camp. It follows the admission process of these new arrivals: handing their luggage over to camp workers, responding to the question posed by a Nazi guard as to whether they have experience working in certain professions, and the separation of families between those deemed fit to work and those not. As previously mentioned in this exhibition, the number of those saved from the gas chambers for forced labour at Sobibór were very few.
In this opening scene, the group of women who have not been chosen for work are led towards the shower, where they are told that they will be rid of any diseases. Their hair is cut off, and they then walk through the dark and funnel into the shower room. A Nazi guard locks the door, and the music increases in intensity as the women wait in anticipation for the showers to be turned on. Once the showers are turned on, the women realise that it is gas, as opposed to water, which is leaking out from the showerheads and they start to panic. They vomit, clutch their necks, and fall to the ground, whilst SS officer Karl Frenzel, watches through a window; this scene is shockingly graphic. As the camera pans over the pile of dead bodies, female choral voices play over the top, their angelic tones representative of the death that we have just witnessed.
Characters in the opening scene (Credit: Cinema Production ©).
Soviet prisoner of war Alexander Pechersky is first seen “when he is threatened with a knife because other prisoners do not believe that he is truly a Jew. He decides to drop his trousers and demonstrate his ‘Jewishness’ to all, which could be interpreted as either a sign of Russian machismo or merely as the sole way for him to prove his heritage to those around him.” Though this scene has never been recollected by any of the Sobibór survivors, within the context of this adaptation, it is significant in reminding the audience of Pecherksy’s lesser known identity as a Jew. Thus, the film follows Pechersky’s organisation of the revolt at the camp, whilst also focusing on his overt masculinity. One such scene which most openly displays this is the tree-chopping sequence. SS Karl Frenzel, the commandant of the camp, orders Pechersky to cut a large tree stump in half; if he failed at this task in the five-minute deadline, every tenth prisoner present would be shot. Pechersky manages to succeed and, as a reward, is given an apple by Frenzel. Though Pechersky was actually offered a packet of cigarettes in exchange for his efforts, according to his memoirs, the apple serves as a symbol of (biblical) temptation in this adaptation.
As in Jack Gold’s Escape from Sobibór, romantic relationships are also a crucial part of Sobibór’s narrative. According to Khabensky, the focus on the love between Pechersky and female prisoner Luka, was one of the ways in which Pechersky’s transformation from a “Soviet individual to a normal individual” was highlighted. “For the Soviet, the social is superior to the personal”, yet through confessing his love to Luka, Pechersky can make the difficult decision to escape with ease.
The bond between Pechersky and Luka is most poignantly displayed in the final scene of the film. Following the revolt and the murder of guards at the camp, the revolt organisers and some of the other campmates flee the site. “Pechersky runs against the flow of traffic, returning to the cacophony of gunfire to find Luka’s dead body, and slowly carries her through the fields, defiant in the face of possible death at the hands of the Nazi guards. Pechersky is the valiant, heroic leader who puts the needs of others before himself, protecting those around him.” In this cinematic representation, not only did Pechersky lead the revolt, thereby saving Jews at the camp and resulting in the camp being eventually closed down, but he also returned to the site of danger to save those in need: namely Luka. In this directive decision, one could argue this is the image of the Soviet Union Russia wants to show the world, via the heroism of the Sobibór uprising.
Lineup of prisoners (Credit: Cinema Production ©).
Domestically, the film was “an unprecedented success for its genre in Russia,” grossing $2 million in the first few days. Khabensky proudly proclaimed the film had made “six times its projected box office receipts in Russia,” noting that some of the proceeds would be donated to charity. In recognition of the film’s success, Khabensky was awarded the Fiddler on the Roof prize for cinematography, awarded in Moscow. In addition, the film won The Grand Prix of the Golden Tower Film Festival, held in Russia, and was also included in the list of Academy Award nominees for the category “Best Foreign Language Film” in 2018. In terms of global and public memory of Sobibór, the film also succeeded in bringing the significance of the camp - and its victims - back into the cultural mainstream, which remains as relevant in the present decade, if not more so, than in 1987.
The film’s educational value was praised by some officials and reviewers. For instance, film critic Andrei Plakhov acknowledged that the film “is an opportunity for a large number of people to learn about the Sobibór tragedy and about the courage of the Jewish prisoners who dared to rise up against the monstrous hell in which they fell.” Seemingly, the pedagogical element of the film is particularly important in light of recent memory politics, particularly concerning the Holocaust and Second World War. At the film’s US premiere at the Russian embassy in Washington D. C., Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatolii Antonov argued that “such crimes [as the Holocaust] can never be forgiven or forgotten”, as well as commenting on the recent attempts at historical revisionism and at “cast[ing] a shadow over the heroic victory of our country that together with its allies defeated the Nazis and stopped the German war machine of destruction.” Susan Carmel, Chairman of the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation, also linked the film’s significance to current issues of historical ignorance:
"There was a recent survey that 66 percent of Millennials do not even know what Auschwitz [one of the biggest Nazi death camps] is… Most of them think that less than two million Jews died in the Holocaust. Almost none of them realise that 27-30 million Russians died in World War II, and that they helped to liberate the concentration camps and free so many people… So, this historical background is critically important particularly in light of issues today."
Certain reviews also commented on how this particular adaptation has addressed perceived ‘gaps or flaws’ found in previous films about the camp. For example, it was acknowledged that
“The film also goes further than any previous production — including the 1987 British television film “Escape from Sobibor” [...] — 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…”
(Credit: Cinema Production ©).
Yet, reviews of the film have not been exclusively positive. For example, Leonid Terushkin, Head Archivist at the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Centre, commented on historical inaccuracies present in the film, which he argues makes the film “unbelievable”. Holocaust historian Aron Shneer also assessed how closely the filmmakers adhered to historical truth, acknowledging that errors were present in the film, including the crematoria and the existence of an orchestra at the railway ramp in the opening scene. When comparing the topography of Khabensky’s camp set to the models or drawings of the survivors, it is not always cohesive. One reviewer commented on the significance of these mistakes:
“By making historical films based on true events, filmmakers take on a double responsibility. First, you need to preserve historical accuracy. Secondly, to shoot the story so that the viewer does not get bored. But combining this can be difficult in practice, so truthfulness is often sacrificed for entertainment.”
However, a review on Russian state-controlled news channel RT noted that “...Sobibór is not a documentary, but an artistic one, and there was a place in it for the fiction and imagination of the scriptwriters and director. A striking example of this is the scene of a crazy party, the apogee of the excesses of German soldiers. There are indeed references to such an event, but what viewers will see on the screen is a figment of the imagination of the filmmakers.”
Another issue associated with the film was regarding the contribution of others, besides Alexander Pechersky, to the revolt at the camp. This was noted by Polish reviewer, Łukasz Jasina. As spokesperson for the Polish Institute of International Affairs, he argued that
“The film essentially ignores the leader of the rebellion, a Polish Jew from Żółkiewka, Leon Feldhendler. Instead, it features Jews from the Red Army and mainly the officer Alexander Pechersky rather than those from other countries. People who do not have full knowledge of the events of October 1943 may [...] view the rebellion based only on the interaction of the Soviet prisoners, the German SS, and the Ukrainian guards. This results in an extremely loose interpretation of history.”
In this way, it can be suggested that the film focuses exclusively on the Soviet contribution to the organisation and execution revolt at the camp, nationalising the heroism displayed there. This is an important development in light of the controversy surrounding the update of the museum at the site of the former camp. In 2013 the Russian state was invited to send representatives to a committee dedicated to the renovation of the museum at the site of the former camp. Officials from Poland, Israel, the Netherlands and Slovakia were also invited. However, it was announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry in June 2016 that they had not yet received official confirmation of the Russian involvement in the project. The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that Russia was being singled out, arguing that “The Polish side has pointed to various technical reasons for this, which do not seem to have prevented other countries from joining the project.” Ultimately, in 2017 Poland decided to exclude Russia officially from the process. Even though the creation of this film is not directly linked to this disagreement between Russia and Poland over this museum, the film can be considered an alternative way to disseminate a Russian perspective of the events at the camp in the lead-up to 14th October 1943.
The arguments made on this page are further elaborated in an article written by the author: Isabel Sawkins, ‘Russia’s State Mobilization of the Holocaust Onscreen – Konstantin Khabensky’s Film Sobibor (2018)’, Modern Languages Open, 1 (2020), p. 23
Translations from Russian are the author’s own.