Film Review: Sobibor (2018)

As an avid student of Holocaust history, I anxiously awaited the release of the 2018 film Sobibor, directed by Konstantin Khabenskiy. Unfortunately, after viewing the movie, I cannot recommend it to anyone who wishes to watch for educational purposes. While all films are artistic expressions, the makers of this Sobibor in my opinion went too far. I do not fault them for attempting to tell the story of what happened at Sobibor (the most successful revolt of Jewish death camp prisoners during World War II). However, it was an injustice to take so many creative liberties. Stories as serious as these should not be rewritten, embellished, or modified, rather they should be told as accurately as possible. Unlike works of fiction made into screenplays, these are real stories about real people who lived through horrific historical events.

The historical omissions and deviations in the film will likely stand out to anyone well versed in Holocaust/Shoah history. I was so disappointed that I had to force myself to finish watching all the way through. One thing that was accurately portrayed in the film, besides the basic storyline and the portrayal of some individuals who were at Sobibor, was the fact that Sobibor was hell on earth. The film is rife with depictions of gory violence characteristic of Sobibor and other Nazi death camps. Otherwise, there are so many historical inconsistencies in the film that it would be difficult to list them all. Here are a few that stood out.

  • Sobibor was not a large facility with brick buildings and crematories such as those at Auschwitz. It was hastily constructed during SS Operation Reinhard (the planned systematic murder of all Jews in Poland) with most structures built of lumber sourced from nearby forests. The only brick building on the site was the gas chamber. Corpses of victims were initially buried in mass graves. Later prisoners were forced to disinter bodies and cremate them on large outdoor grates made from railroad rails raised a meter or so off the ground on concrete pilings. Unlike Auschwitz and other SS operated concentration camps that existed as a source of slave labor for the Nazi war machine, Sobibor (along with Treblinka and Belzec) existed solely for the purpose of mass murder and plunder of Jewish victims.
  • At the time of the uprising, bodies of victims were being cremated outdoors. One of the most moving moments in Sasha Pechersky‘s memoir leading up to his decision to help plan the revolt, is the moment when he realizes what the smoke is. This was not accurately portrayed in the film.
  • The train station disembarkation scene is inaccurate. At Sobibor (as well as Treblinka and Belzec) there were quite often terrible displays of brutality unless the transports came from Western Europe. Men and women with children were separated right at the rail siding and marched into the camp separately rather than all together.
  • The infamous “Himmelstrasse” or “Road to Heaven,” also referred to as the “Schlauch” or tube, a key feature in all descriptions of Sobibor (and Treblinka), is conspicuously missing in this film. This was a 100-200 meter long, two-meter wide, open-air pathway lined with barbed wire with pine branches intertwined in it to hide it from the view of the rest of the camp. It led from the disrobing area directly to the gas chambers. Victims were driven down this pathway by one SS man and several Ukrainian guards. Often victims were left standing naked exposed to the elements for long periods of time waiting to enter the gas chambers. During winter this caused terrible suffering.
  • The depictions of the SS guards in the film as undisciplined, immature imbeciles is also inaccurate – they were highly disciplined, cold-blooded killers who took great pride in their evil “work.” One scene in this film that comes to mind is when SS man Gustav Wagner is shown clowning around with jewelry (stolen from victims). Wagner acts like an immature teenager who has been caught doing something foolish when SS commandant Franz Reichleitner unexpectedly walks into the room. By all accounts Wagner was a cunning, wicked, person who took pleasure in the suffering of his victims. The depiction of the SS guards seems to fit with WWII Soviet/Russian propaganda stereotypes, which makes sense seeing as how the film is a Russian production.

Anyone interested in watching a film that tells a more accurate story of what happened at Sobibor should watch Jack Gold’s 1987 film Escape from Sobibor. The dialogue and scenes in Gold’s film come directly from the memoirs of Sobibor survivors Stanislaw Szmajzner and Thomas Blatt, and the Holocaust historian Richard Rashke. I also recommend the following works to anyone interested in learning more about Sobibor:

Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke

Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps by Yitzhak Arad

Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience by Gitta Sereny

A Promise at Sobibor: A Jewish Boy’s Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland by Philip “Fiszel” Bialowitz and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski

Dancing through Darkness: When Love & Dreams Survived a Nazi Death Camp by Ann Markham Walsh

Sobibor : The Forgotten Revolt – A Survivor’s Report by Thomas “Toivi” Blatt From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival by Thomas Toivi Blatt and Christopher R. Browning

A Promise at Sobibor: A Jewish Boy’s Story of Revolt and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland by Philip “Fiszel” Bialowitz, Philip “Fiszel” Bialowitz

Sasha Pechersky: Holocaust Hero, Sobibor Resistance Leader, and Hostage of History by Selma Leydesdorff