Like A Visitor From The Living, his interview documentary about the Nazi showcase ghetto Theresienstadt, Sobibor is a footnote to French director Claude Lanzmann’s eight-hour-plus Holocaust documentary, Shoah (1985). It consists of a detailed and at times riveting interview with Yehuda Lerner who, as a young Jew during WW II, was shuttled to various places of detainment before ending up at Sobibor, the Polish extermination camp. Sobibor is famous for being the site of the only successful uprising of Jewish prisoners against their Nazi captors — and as a survivor of that uprising, Lerner bears witness to an incident that was inspirational, suspenseful and horrifying.
Because of his subject matter, Lanzmann’s cinematic technique seems to be generally considered above criticism, but the fact remains that he’s a tedious filmmaker. As usual, he interlaces his talking-head shots with footage of the historical sites in question as they are today — an approach which, in Shoah, first seemed sad, then increasingly pointless. His interview style is like that of a member of the Washington press corps during a crisis — ask obvious questions and ask them more than once. Lerner’s story flows as well as it does because he’s able to maintain the thread of his narrative despite Lanzmann’s nonstarter queries. And the decision to include long passages of Lerner speaking Hebrew sans subtitles (which are then offered during the French translation) seems perverse.
Lanzmann also has an intellectual-shading-into-mystical belief in the power of raw statistics to convey the scope of truths that are otherwise hard to grasp. At the end of Sobibor, he reads to us a very long list of the number of victims who came to the death camp from various locations as the same list slowly scrolls by on the screen. After a few minutes, one begins to feel an irreverent and wholly inappropriate feeling: boredom.
Still, Sobibor is Yehuda Lerner’s story, compellingly told by the teller, despite the lugubrious presentation, and unquestionably worth hearing.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].