Savina Petkova on Konstantin Khabenskiy’s ‘Sobibor‘ (2018)
First-time director Konstantin Khabenskiy goes all in with his debut — based on a true story of the successful escape from the Nazi death camp, Sobibor (its levelled remains sit on Polish ground today). In the words of the director, the Russian Oscar submission is his “own fantasy” of how it was in the camp. Subjecting humanity’s biggest historical trauma to one’s own phantasmagoric treatment might blow up the Russian box offices, but it still remains the most impious Holocaust film ever made.
Bold enough to be the first feature that recreates the inside of a gas chamber, not withholding the naked bodies, the horror, the disbelief, and of course, the suffocation — Sobibor’s shameless camerawork is ruthless not in a shocking New Extremist way, but to sow the seeds of righteous revenge. Approaching Holocaust trauma has been the most precarious object of artistic representation, epitomised by Theodor Adorno’s proclamation that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. In the long tradition of tackling this aching trauma there have been metaphoric treatments, light-hearted (Life Is Beautiful, 1997), harrowing, (The Pianist, 2002), heroic (Schindler’s List, 1993). Even the bravest of them, Son of Saul (2015), omitted representation of the mass killings in gas chambers, confining its brutality to dragging out the corpses post mortem. In this inglorious, yet crucial pantheon, Sobibor stands out as inappropriate, inept, and most of all, rooted in a misconception that is historically disrespectful. Extremely gory, the film features scenes of mass killing, rape, immolation, torture, and while such unpleasant representation usually bears a political meaning and activates ethical debates within the spectator, here it has quite the opposite effect.
Sobibor works to demonise all of the German soldiers portrayed, making them one-dimensional figures of unspeakable evil that derive great enjoyment in abuse and killings. While the Holocaust and its extermination camps remain the vilest calamity and these cruel acts no doubt occurred, the film proves shallow enough to oversimplify and debase history to the level of appeasement.
Presenting an entirely one-sided revenge saga, first time director makes a bold, crowd-pleasing statement by putting the narrative weight on the character of Alexander ‘Sasha’ Pechersky (played by Khabenskiy himself) — real-life Soviet-born Jew, leader of the camp uprising. Presenting this Minsk-born hero as a legendary Russian saviour, the film exploits the holocaust and historical antagonisms for contemporary nationalistic purposes. This comes as no surprise since Russia has appropriated the story long ago, naming schools after Pechersky and commemorating him with monuments and establishing an annual Nazi Defeat Parade (9th May). Before his death in 1990, he was never recognised by the Russians. Let’s not also forget that prisoners returning to the Soviet Union after the war were also thrown into the Gulag for their ‘failure’.
In just three weeks at the camp, Sasha manages to organise an escape plan that unifies outcasts (and women!) under his Saviour saber. We even get to see a half-baked love story with a young girl whose words of warning and devotion are spoken in Russian-dubbed Polish. In the end, her only function is to die in Sasha’s arms. Adding more to this stoic ideal, a long-take sequence of public humiliation from Nazi commandant Frenzel (English-speaking but dubbed in Russian Christopher Lambert), cements Sasha as the rebel with the necessary character to carry out the escape deed. Even when officer Frenzel throws him an apple, the prisoner contentiously rejects this token of pity. The fruit of sin, nevertheless, is masked here as a peace offering: the film rarely uses symbols, and when it does, it confuses their meaning.
Stylistically, Frenzel is the ultimate villain — a hideous scar deforms his face and his disgusting, dominating presence ticks all the boxes for an antagonist. No nuance is needed here since the sole purpose of his character is an object of reparation, as if punishing this figure and the other German officers is going to make amends for the wrongs done. Sobibor’s attempt to rewrite history fails on an ideological level; it promulgates a nationalistic agenda by peddling the hero Pechersky, allowing for a self-congratulatory speech on the educational purposes of the film. No doubt, this is how Sobibor got funded, with its 2 million dollar state budget, but to film audiences outside of Russia (where it was a smashing success), the endeavour seems like a stupid gamble over humanity’s deepest wound.
Just as the other characters are reduced to a singular simple function, the figure of Selma (Mariya Kozhevnikova) is little but the beautiful girl that gets harassed because of her looks and good heart. Her few lines of dialogue concern the saving of a stuttering prisoner, who becomes the sacrificial lamb for random German bloodthirstiness. No doubt, cruelty to its extremes was an agonising reality in concentration camps, yet the film’s iteration and lingering on physical violence as the sole fact seems as pointless as the countless lashes Frenzel inflicts on a disabled prisoner, forcing him to count his own pain to infinity.
Sobibor is a filmic representation of grandiose ambition, with faint artistic expressionism in framing a historical tale with gory Nazisploitation elements, yet it lacks the self-awareness that is absolutely indispensable to such a “truthful” reenactment of this history, as it claims to be. While criticising the use of gory violence could be seen as a restriction imposed on film aesthetics, the argument here concerns not “why” this is represented, but “how” and “to what effect”. In a way, the profane accentuation on the distinction between “bad guys” and “good guys” serves as censorship, not allowing the film to engage in a deeper and more profound debate about humanism and the inhumane character of concentration camps. Head over heels in telling a survival story (“the only camp from which people managed to escape”), Sobibor blindly neglects the fact that film is a responsible medium that cannot afford to speak in such simplistic binaries, which, apropos, lie at the core of misunderstanding, conflict, and violence.
Screened as part of 2018 Russian Film Week