Escape from Sobibor (1987)
Escape From Sobibor is the story of the mass escape from the Nazi extermination camp at Sobibor, the most successful uprising by Jewish prisoners of German extermination camps (uprisings also took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka). The film was directed by Jack Gold and shot in Avala, Yugoslavia (now Serbia).
The script, by Reginald Rose, was based on Richard Rashke’s 1983 book of the same name, along with a manuscript by Thomas Blatt, “From the Ashes of Sobibor”, and a book by Stanisław Szmajzner, Inferno in Sobibor.
On 14 October 1943, members of the Sobibor camp’s underground resistance succeeded in covertly killing 11 German SS-Totenkopfverbände officers and a number of Sonderdienst Ukrainian and Volksdeutsche guards. Of the 600 inmates in the camp, roughly 300 escaped, although all but 50–70 were later re-captured and killed. After the escape, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the death camp closed. It was dismantled, bulldozed under the earth, and planted over with trees to cover it up.
The film begins with a new trainload of Polish Jews arriving for processing at Sobibor. The German Commandant gives them a welcome speech, assuring the new arrivals that the place is a work camp. Other SS officers move along the assembled lines of prisoners, selecting a small number who have trade skills (such as goldsmiths, seamstresses, shoemakers, and tailors). The remaining prisoners are sent away to a different part of the camp from which a pillar of smoke rises day and night. It is some time before the new prisoners realise that Sobibor is a death camp; all of the other Jews are exterminated in gas chambers, and their corpses are cremated in large ovens. The small number of prisoners kept alive in the other part of the camp are charged with sorting the belongings taken from those who are murdered and then repairing the shoes, recycling the clothing, and melting down any silver or gold to make jewellery for the SS officers. Despite their usefulness, these surviving prisoners’ existence is precarious; beatings and murders can occur at any time.
Gustav Wagner is the most clever and sadistic of the German officers. When two prisoners escape from a work detail in the nearby forest, Wagner forces the remaining thirteen prisoners of the work gang to each select one other prisoner to die with them (under the threat that if they refuse, he will select fifty) and then executes all twenty six.
The leader of the prisoners, Leon Feldhendler, realises that when the trains eventually stop coming, the camp will have outlived its usefulness, and all the remaining Jews will be murdered. He devises a plan for every prisoner to escape, by luring the SS officers and NCOs into the prisoners’ barracks and work huts one by one and killing them as quietly as possible. Once all the Germans are dead, the prisoners will assemble into columns and simply march out of the camp as if they have been ordered to, and it is hoped that the Ukrainian Guards, not knowing what is going on, and with no Germans left alive to give orders or raise the alarm, will not interfere. A new group of prisoners arrives: Russian Jews who were soldiers with the Soviet army. Their leader, Sasha Pechersky, and his men, willingly join the revolt, their military skills proving invaluable.
The Camp Kommandant leaves for several days, taking Wagner with him, which proves an advantage as the most cunning of the SS officers will be absent. On 14 October 1943, the plan goes into action. One by one, SS officers and NCOs are lured into traps set by groups of prisoners armed with knives and clubs. Eleven Germans are killed, but one officer, Karl Frenzel, unwittingly evades his killers, discovers the corpse of one of his colleagues, and raises the alarm. By now, the prisoners have assembled on the parade ground and, realising the plan has been discovered, Pechersky and Feldhendler urge the prisoners to revolt and flee the camp. Most of the 600 prisoners stampede for the perimeter fences, some of the Jews using captured rifles to shoot their way through the Ukrainian guards. Other guards open fire with machine guns from observation towers, cutting many of the fleeing prisoners down, and other would-be escapees are killed on the minefield surrounding the camp. But over 300 Jews reach the forest and escape.
As the survivors flee deeper into the forest, famed newscaster Howard K. Smith narrates the fates that befell some of the survivors on whose accounts the film was based. Of the 300 prisoners who escaped, only approximately 50 survived to see the end of the war in 1945. Pechersky makes it back to Soviet lines and rejoins the Red Army, surviving the war, and Feldhendler lives to see the end of the war but is killed shortly afterwards in a clash with anti-semitic Poles. After the uprising, which was the largest escape from a prison camp of any kind in Europe during World War II, Sobibor was bulldozed to the ground, and trees were planted on the site to remove any sign of its existence.
Written by Thomas Blatt (manuscript), Richard Rashke (book), Reginald, Rose (teleplay), and Stanislaw Szmajzner (book)
Directed by Jack Gold
Narrated by Howard K. Smith
Restored and Upscaled by moonflix, LLC
Alan Arkin as Leon Feldhendler
Joanna Pacuła as Luka (Gertrude Poppert)
Rutger Hauer as Lieutenant Aleksandr ‘Sasha’ Pechersky
Hartmut Becker as SS-Hauptscharführer Gustav Wagner as Selma Wijnberg
David Miller as Tailor Mundek
Jack Chissick as Hershel Zuckerman
Ned Vukovic as Morris
Sara Sugarman as Naomi
Peter Jonfield as Kapo Sturm
Dijana Kržanić as Esther Terner
Irfan Mensur as Kalimali
Zoran Stojiljković as Boris
Svetolik Nikačević as Old Man
Miša Janketić as Oberkapo Berliner
Dejan Čavić as Kapo Spitz
Zlatan Fazlagić as Weiss
Predrag Milinković as Kapo Jacob
Svetislav Goncić as Gardener
Gojko Baletić as Guard (uncredited)
Milan Erak as SS Corporal (uncredited)
Rastislav Jović as Shlomo’s Father (uncredited)
Erol Kadić as Gardener
Miroljub Lešo as Prisoner (uncredited)
Bozidar Pavićević-Longa as SS-Sturmmann Ivan Klatt (uncredited)
Howard K. Smith as Narrator (American version) (uncredited)
Dragomir Stanojević as Guard (uncredited)
Predrag Todorović as Guard (uncredited)
Jelena Žigon as Shlomo’s Mother (uncredited)
Original release date:
April 12th, 1987