Dir. Claude Lanzmann, France 2001, 95 mins.
A companion piece for his celebrated 1985 masterpiece Shoah, this new documentary combines material shot in 1979 but never incorporated in Claude Lanzmann's major opus, with some additional footage taken in Poland recently. Dealing with the uprising that took place at the date and the time specified by the film's title in the infamous Sobibor extermination camp, it features one single interview only, with one of protagonists of that event, Yehuda Lerner. The uprising itself was mentioned in Shoah by one of the Polish witnesses, Jan Piwonski, the assistant switchman of the train station, but Lanzmann did not to elaborate on it any further at the time, since he felt the episode deserved a film of its own.
Lerner's story is certainly a remarkable one. Taken from the Warsaw ghetto and separated from his family when only 16, he was sent east to the work camps of Belarus, but managed to run away from 8 such camps in the course of six months. That he was not shot or hung on the spot each time he was apprehended was just a matter of luck, particularly when death was dealt by the Germans, all around him, for the slightest excuse.
After his final escape to Minsk, he was caught and put on a transport with Red Army Jewish prisoners - again a piece of luck because POWs were treated better than others - back to Poland. He landed in Sobibor, where his life was spared only because he volunteered, with sixty other prisoners of war, to join the craftsmen - tailors, cobblers, carpenters and such - working for the German army in the camp.
One of the other prisoners, Alexander Petchersky, a former Soviet officer, immediately set about to organize the resistance, carefully preparing the uprising which took place about six weeks later. The plan was to assign a special team to each one of the barracks on the camp. On a fixed date, the sixteen German soldiers present on the camp (the rest of the guards were Ukrainian) were supposed to be drawn under false pretences to the different barracks, all of them at the same time, to be killed simultaneously. The plan was based on the German natural penchant for punctuality - they couldn't help being there in time - and it was a success because of it.
Lerner, who despite his age found his place in one of the execution teams, goes on to describe the entire action at great length. Lanzmann, who insists on every detail up to this stage, cuts the narrative off at the moment Lerner makes his escape from the camp into the neighboring woods.
As an additional piece of documentation on the Holocaust, this is without doubt invaluable. Lerner's matter-of-fact delivery is clear and precise, as horrific as the information might be, with Lanzmann himself often repeating questions to leave no doubt about the sense of the answers. Contemporary Polish landscapes play a subtle counterpoint to Lerner's story, with a cackling flock of geese inserted to show how effective they are in drowning human voices, just as they were when they dissimulated the screams of the victims.
Faithful to the Shoah approach, Lanzmann refrains from using archive footage with the exception of the opening still. Also in the spirit of the earlier film, he leaves Lerner's full testimony in Hebrew on the soundtrack, followed by an even fuller translation into French. Ethically admirable and effective in limited sequences, the decision is however hard on an audience that has, for the entire length of the film, to take in the same pieces of information twice. That is if they are lucky enough to speak both languages. If not, they may have an even harder time. The same goes for Lanzmann's choice of reading his foreword at the beginning of the film in his own voice, and verbally delivering all the statistics of extermination in Sobibor, at the end, even though in both cases, the information is displayed in plain view on the screen. Theoretically this may be correct, but in practice, outside academic circles, it risks being counter-productive.
Prod cos Why Not Productions, Les Films Aleph, France 2 Cinema
Co prod Canal +, France Television Images
Int'l sales Wild Bunch
Cinematography Caroline Champetier, Dominique Chapuis
Ed Chantal Hymans, Sabine Mamou
Sound Bernard Aubouy