I grew up with pretty lenient parents when it came to watching movies. The youngest of three, my pre-teen 80s memories are more populated by boob-tatsic stuff like Police Academy and Revenge of the Nerds than Disney classics. I think I’ve grown up to be a pretty well adjusted dude, and I think the fact that I saw Goodfellas and Reservoir Dogs when I was 12 or 13 just made me ahead of the curve when it came to appreciating awesome cinema. It also meant I saw some pretty confronting stuff that I really think was necessary, if for no other reason than to get an appreciation for history.
Escape From Sobibor was made in 1987. I know I saw it after someone in my family taped it off the telly. I also know I saw it crazy young, considering it’s a movie about the holocaust. So I’m gonna assume I saw it when it was a first release TV airing, probably before 1990, which means I was maybe 10 years old, tops. My memory is also that it was some sort of watershed movie in our house, and that I saw it more than once. Now, I know it’s minimum two decades since I have seen Escape From Sobibor, and it it’s some hardcore shit for a bloke in his mid 30s. Buggers me how my 10ish year old mind ever got around it all those years ago.
“In 1942. SS chief, Heimlich Himmler, initiated Operation Reinhart, Nazi Germany’s final solution to the Jewish question. Three death camps were built and staffed under top secret orders. These camps, all in eastern Poland, were Belzec, Treblinka and the most secret, Sobibor. It was here, on October the 14tm, the biggest, most successful prisoner revolt of World War II, took place. This, is that story.”
Alan Arkin is Leon Feldhendler, a long term Jewish prisoner who has figured out how to survive. When a train load of new prisoners arrives, he has quick, effective advice to help them do the same. And while his tips are generally based on how to live under the radar and stay alive by staying unnoticed, it’s all a rouse, as he is planning, “the biggest, most successful prisoner revolt”, teased in the opening narration. When the new batch of Russian POWs includes Rutger Hauer as Sasha, Leon finally has the muscle he needs to make the escape a plausible possibility.
No holocaust movie would be complete without showing us why these people needed to escape. And Escape From Sobibor doesn’t shy away for the atrocities committed by the Nazis at this time. A parade of innocent, honorable people is dragged past the camera, while a large numbers are systematically tortured and ridiculed to a level that would seem ludicrously fictional if we didn’t know that this shit actually went down.
Escape From Sobibor is pretty tame by today’s standards. There are beatings and oppression and blind hate, but it’s never graphic. And these prisoners are the most well nourished, clean and healthy concentration camp inhabitants I’ve ever seen. But it still gets its point made and is still pretty hard hitting.