Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M. Movie Review
Planned for inclusion as footage within French director and journalist Claude Lanzmann's landmark 9-hour documentary Shoah (the interview footage with Lerner is from 1979), Lanzmann considered the material important enough to merit its own treatment as a separate feature film. Those familiar with Lanzmann will be aware of his astute, philosophically charged methods: lingering images of streets and squares of contemporary Poland; long, meditative shots of Sobibor itself, now decaying and worn over by time; unflinching interviews that run for prolonged takes, lingering on the heavy silences.
Time is permitted for audience reflection during the exhaustive translations from Hebrew to French, and one of Lanzmann's masterstrokes is allowing Lerner to digress without subtitles, only providing subtitles during the translation. This may sound lugubrious, even pretentious, but the interactive effect Lanzmann intends and achieves is uncanny. Lanzmann claims to have been offended by the images of Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful because they simplify the Holocaust through pictures, perhaps in an attempt to quantify or understand the unthinkable. Lanzmann has a different, more challenging, agenda. For him, the Holocaust cannot neatly be put into a box of evil things to be neatly thrown away. There's no pat moral, no cheap sentimentality, no answers. What you choose to do with Lanzmann's time capsule is a decision for the individual viewer.
In the process of his examination, Lanzmann asks deceptively simple questions, often in the form of a blunt statement:
So it's 3 P.M...
Describe the axe you were holding.
Describe [the German you were about to kill].
How did you feel?
You look a little pale.
So it's 5 P.M...
In his answers, Lerner jokes that the entire plan worked based on the notion of German punctuality ("We knew that he would be here by 4:00 P.M. exactly! And that the next German would promptly show up at 4:05 P.M. exactly!") Grim descriptions of an axe as sharp as a razor blade or a German soldier's arm hanging under a pile of coats are punctuated by Lerner's ceaseless smile, his robust exclamations that make his body shake with vigor, his trembling hand as he smokes a cigarette. "The Jews sounded like geese when they were gassed," he says, right before acknowledging that the Germans kept real geese near the camps to cover the sound of inhuman screams.
Lanzmann's climax is sure to send some audience members running for the exit. There's no visceral shock of footage or photographs of thousands of corpses piled in a ditch. Lanzmann fills the screen with dates, locations, and numbers, then proceeds to read in his thick French accent how many victims were brought to Sobibor (to die). "Seex ssousand; two hondred and forty free; figures unknown; figures unknown; ten ssousand..." This goes on for several minutes on end, to the point where a few people at the New York Film Festival press screening got up and left. After running a complete tally, Lanzmann considers aloud that this makes up over 250,000 victims. He lets the closing credits roll over a shot of wind rustling through the trees. The rest is silence.
Aka Sobibor, 14 octobre 1943, 16 heures.
Road to nowhere.