Sobibor, Oct. 14th, 1943, 4 P.M.
When Claude Lanzmann assembled his mammoth documentary Shoah in 1985, he left one key passage out of the nine-hour collection of interviews with Holocaust survivors. Yehuda Lerner, a man who escaped from eight concentration camps, described for Lanzmann his part in the celebrated Sobibor uprising, during which a group of Jews revolted against their Nazi captors, killing several guards and escaping into the woods outside the Polish camp. Lanzmann intended Shoah to be a thorough, unassailable document of the Holocaust from start to finish, with an accent on minutiae; the Sobibor story was too big, and too triumphant, for that mission. More than 15 years after Shoah's debut, Lanzmann finally released the Lerner interview under the title Sobibor, Oct. 14th, 1943, 4 P.M. Following his established method, Lanzmann keeps a camera tight on Lerner's face as the latter speaks in Hebrew, which gets translated into French and then subtitled, meaning that the film takes twice as long as it really needs to. But the repetition gives the audience time to contemplate the quality of the translationto ponder how stories can change over time and distanceand to watch Lerner stare, impassively, while his lips twitch involuntarily. This pattern gets especially potent when Lerner describes killing a man for the first time, or when he describes the flock of geese that the Germans kept outside the camp, to mask the screams of their victims. At the beginning of Sobibor, Lanzmann lays out his thesis that the horrors of the Holocaust led the Jews to "reappropriate power and violence," and Lerner's adventure narrative certainly reinforces that. But for the most part, Sobibor lacks the indomitable force of Shoah. Having one voice instead a multitude makes the film feel cramped, and even Lanzmann's once-chilling style of intercutting contemporary footage from the sites that his interviewees describe now seems overly staid. Most ineffectual is his trump-card finale, a 10-minute recital of how many people were on the trains to Sobibor for each day that the camp was in operation. The statistic-reading is meant to create the sort of awesome, head-shaking feeling of something like the Vietnam memorial, but it mostly comes off as incongruous after Lerner's tale of snatching a moment of victory amid years of defeat. Like the film itself, the coda has the air of an afterthought.