Escape From Sobibor (1987)
Directed by Jack Gold
Written by Reginald Rose, based on the book by Richard Rashke
starring Alan Arkin Joanna Pacula Rutger Hauer Hartmut Becker Jack Shepherd

There are those rare occasions in which the real world so far surpasses what we can imagine that any dramatic version needs no dressing-up. No melodrama, no adornment. You simply re-enact and point the camera. The burden of suspension of disbelief is no longer on the filmmaker, because these things happened. He simply tells the story, and plain simplicity is adequate, because the onus is now on the viewer to find a way to take what occurs on screen and somehow integrate it into what he imagines the real world to be like. If the Nazis had not existed, they would be completely unbelievable as fictitious villains; they were and are far beyond what any storyteller would craft from the whole cloth and ask his audience to accept.

This is not the kind of subject matter I usually deal with around here, I know; it's too gutwrenchingly serious, too un mockable, for my habitual reviewing style. But Escape From Sobibor is now readily available as a dollar DVD, and I couldn't leave it on the shelf while I went through a Rutger Hauer Video Binge. So now I've committed myself to saying something about a movie which portrays, in some small part, events whose monstrous enormity render all the words said about it trivial.

This particular small part concerns the Polishbased Nazi death camp of Sobibor, which was, on October 14, 1943, the site of the only successful camp revolt during World War 2. This information is given to us helpfully by narrator Howard K. Smith, who was a foreign correspondent during the war, and who is one of the few utterly false steps in the production. His is a newsy voice, appropriate for detailing a ballplayer's batting average or calling our attention to the beautiful details in a nature documentary; it's far too convivial for the events it presages. Thankfully, narration is heard only here and at the very end.

The camp at Sobibor is already well populated by the time our story opens, composed entirely of Jewish men and women whose trades have made them marginally valuable to their SS overseers. Leon (Alan Arkin) has somehow become a nominal leader, a man to whom almost every prisoner defers, though when a trio on gardening duty tell him their plan to escape today, Leon is powerless to stop them. He can only listen from afar to the gunshots as the three men make it past the barbed wire, and the explosions as they try to cross the minefield.

Working their trades for the Nazis is onerous enough, but the men of Sobibor have an even worse duty. They stand at the edge of the railroad and help the new arrivals off the train while Strauss plays gaily over the loudspeakers, remaining silent and downcast as men are separated from the women and children; as those with a useful skill such as seamstresses, shoemakers, tailors, and, in this case, goldsmiths, are called out; as those without any ability that the Nazis wish to exploit are calmly told that their stay in Sobibor will begin with a hot shower; as the lines of men and women march unsuspectingly to the showers which lead only to gas chambers and incinerators.

This latest trainload yields three seamstresses, Luka (Joanna Pacula), Bajle (Judith Sharp), and Naomi (Sara Sugarman); one shoemaker, Itzhak (Jack Shepherd), who anxiously waves goodbye to his wife and child as they are herded to the showers, and Schlomo (Simon Gregor) and his younger brother Moses (Eli Nathenson), goldsmiths who bid their father and mother farewell in the same way.

Itzak finds out the truth that night, after learning his job duties, when he starts asking around for his family; Leon and his friend Samuel (Emil Wolk) tell him where the showers really lead. Schlomo and Moses have it even harder; Moses is ordered to pick up a gold coin from an SS officer who wants it worked into his whip handle, and in so doing enters the courtyard in which the newcomers are shepherded from the building in which they lose their possessions and come out naked, to the building from which they come out stacked carelessly on a cart.

The new women have no such attachments and no such revelation; but Naomi has managed to smuggle her baby into the sewing shed, and it isn't long before their SS overseer finds out. He is first in a generous mood, and intends to spare the woman's life as he takes the baby off to the showers; but when Naomi spits full in her face, he simply shoots first the mother and then the baby in the head, in the midst of the other seamstresses.

Leon has long entertained plans of escape, for maybe ten or twenty of the 600 prisoners. But the extent to which that plan would be disastrous is shown the following day, when two men bringing water for those on woodcutting detail manage to overpower their overseer and escape. The thirteen other woodcutters try to follow suit, but are caught by the barbed wire, and brought back to the camp centre as an object lesson. There, they are sentenced to die. But not just them. Each of them is forced to choose another prisoner as their "partner in death," or else the officers will simply shoot 50 Jews at random.

Realizing that a similar toll will be exacted if he and his group escaped, Leon backs away from such small-scale plans. The only escape plan he will now support is one that frees all of the prisoners of Sobibor. All six hundred of them.

As they're beating their brains to come up with a plan that can get six hundred people past sixteen SS officers and 125 Ukrainian guards, the dynamic of the camp changes suddenly. A group of Russian solders is tossed into the camp, separated from their comrades-in-arms destined for a real P.O.W. camp because they're Jewish. Their leader is Lt. Sasha Pechersky, as played by Rutger Hauer -- quite possibly the single least intuitive casting of a Jewish role until Christopher Lambert played a Mossad agent in The Point Men. But he clicks immediately with Leon; Sasha will provide the tactical forethought and the muscle of his trained men, and Leon will provide the will and the drive among the prisoners. And the plan they eventually come up with is an audacious one: To have any chance of escape, they will have to quietly kill all sixteen SS officers within the space of one hour.

Originally, Escape From Sobibor was broadcast as a two-part miniseries, but the commonly-available versions are all the feature-length version, hovering just under two hours. Looking solely at the trimmed-down version, I can hazard a guess that all that was really cut were some interpersonal subplots among the prisoners. Schlomo and Bajle decide to gather them rosebuds while they may; Itzhak finds solace of a sort with a similarly-widowed prisoner. The most obviously cut subplot involves Sasha and Luka; to placate the guards' suspicion as to why Sasha hangs out around the Polish Jews' quarters every evening while planning, Leon assigns Luka to act as his "girlfriend." She takes to the role with great sincerity, and because Sasha is also playing along, he doesn't realize that Luka comes to inhabit her role more fully than he. It comes as a shock and a blow to her when she finds out that he's only been going through the motions with her, that he has a wife and child back home in Russia to whom he is very devoted.

I don't think it's any great spoiler to tell you how the escape turns out; thanks to the necessary logistical complexity of silently killing sixteen men in an hour, things go awry, and it's every man/woman for him/herself as they break down the gates and dash across the minefield, sporadically returning fire toward the disorganized Ukrainian guards. Of the 600 prisoners, the historical record shows that almost half died in the attempt. But that means that more than 300 made it to the woods, to safety, leaving the soldiers behind them without leadership and with severed telephone lines. Leon's last charge to them before their mad dash is a familiar one: to "bear witness," to let the world know what had happened there. It's a heady charge, and one that forever remains elusive, because too many of us find it hard to countenance such inhumanity among people whom we would otherwise consider "ordinary." Now that this movie is so readily and cheaply available, more people may possibly be recipients of that witness.


 Escape From Sobibor


There were no bad performances; Hauer and Arkin


No one wants to hear about this any more; the truth hurts

The Bottom Line

There are sometimes movies that you have to see to be reminded that there IS evil lurking in the well as hope. This movie is worth watching!

Full Review

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Does anyone really want to hear about the death camps, in the Second World War, when Nazis slaughtered thousands of men and women? Of course you don't. That explains why no one has been watching this movie, which is one of the best produced in 1987. Many of you probably don't believe it is even true. I have heard groups of people say they think the slaughter of millions was a fantasy . As concentration camp survivors gradually pass away, we hear about it less and less. It is for that reason that it should be shown, even in schools, lest we forget.

The movie is straightforward, linear and effective. There is no creative conflict apparent. The musical background, if you listen, is German schmaltz, something I remember well from my symphony days. If Wagner offends you, you are out of luck. It was cleverly added at appropriate moments.

The movie details a story about the Death camp in Sobibor Poland. Run by the SS, Jews were gassed and cremated there. The strongest, and the ones with skills were culled from the march to the showers, to work at the various jobs at the camp. This movie talks about the attempted escape of 600 prisoners at Sobibor. While the piece is truly less horrible than the life of the prisoners at the camp, it is also possible for the entire family to watch this movie. There is no gratuitous sex, and little foul language. There is violence. It is the logical culmination of hate.


Even though it is a watered down version of what really happened in death camps, this movie brings the horror of the slaughter of millions of Jews, intellectuals, and countless others by the Nazi regime. This movie leaves out the rape and misuse of women, the medical experimentation, and only talks about the stripping of possessions, and desecration of the bodies. Gold teeth were removed from the corpses, for example. I wasn't there. But I don't believe the survivors who talked about their experiences had any reason to lie.

It was also interesting and appropriate that others besides Jews were shown taken to the camps and slaughtered. They brought them from all over Europe, and slaughtered artists, writers, and professors, as well as Gypsies and other out of the mainstream people. Russian soldiers, taken prisoners, were taken to the camp because they were Jewish, or had Jewish background. It is the ultimate crime against humanity that is spotlighted here.

The story is a true one, and the event went down on October 14, 1943. So many people were killed in the camps. But this story is special because the prisoners attempt escape. It also points out another important fact. Although the trains led directly to the camp, they had to keep some prisoners alive to man the camp, in domestic roles, and to dispose of the bodies. As horrible as the killing was, how much more horrible would it have been to meet a train everyday, smile, help the passengers disembark, and know that they were all going to be killed? It magnifies the act of bravery in attempting escape.

Another message, less obvious, is the ability to survive. What would it take? Those with skills managed to maintain their lives, although none of their self respect. They were poorly fed, berated by their captors, and separated from whatever family was left. Arkin as the "head conspirator" shows some of the characteristics needed. Intelligence, dedication, and the ability to appear anonymous.


On second viewing I see that my imagination actually has filled in the gaps. For scenes that I remembered as graphically violent, there was the build up, and noises, but surprisingly very little is shown. There is one scene, where a surviving teenager actually witnesses prisoners being led to the showers, and the horror of the experience is graphic and shocking. Again, you see the line, and know where they are going. A German Shepherd gives chase to an escaping young boy. While you see nothing, you may later think you did.


Hate. How do we learn to hate people? I have heard excuses. and debated the causes, for the development of Nazi Germany, and I have heard anti-Semitism preached in pulpits. I would never have believed it was possible HERE...but it is real. I would never have believed racism could prevail, or reverse racism either. I have seen both, and all. I see it as partner to ignorance, greed, and weakness.
There is a phenomenon in group theory, (or mob theory) where hate is OK when it is sanctioned by a group, perhaps because the individual takes no responsibility for the decisions of the group. In all honesty, I doubt that all Germans knew these death camps existed, or would have sanctioned them if they did. But all were aware of the prevailing anti-Jewish sentiment in the country. Be aware of the groups you belong to and what they hate. It can be an epiphany. I think this movie could be educational for people who think that death camps were mythical, or for groups who allow
themselves to hate.


The movie opens at Sobibor, with prisoners at work. Two or three try to escape, and are gunned down by the Ukranian guards. The other prisoners go to meet the train, and are told to smile and welcome them. The prisoners are separated into two lines, and told they are going to get a shower to prevent typhoid fever. Of course, we quickly discover what this really means.

Prisoners try to make the best life they can under constant oppression from cruel guards. A few of the men are talking escape. At first they planned it for only a few. Then, when a small group attempts escape, they are shot with an equal number of their friends. The leaders decide that everyone should be given the opportunity to escape.

A group of Russian soldiers are detailed to the camp. These soldiers were Jewish and separated from other prisoners of war. The old prisoners and the soldiers join forces, and make a plan. The soldiers need the survival skills of the other prisoners, and the prisoners need the military stance to do what has to be done.

There is a little romantic interest between the Russian captain and one of the prisoner, and all the characters in this movie take on a distinct life of their own. You find yourself hoping desperately for their survival.

We know they are going to try, but do they escape? Does anyone survive? To get the details, you'll have to see the movie.


ALAN ARKIN as Leon, the leader of the prisoners. Few people could play this part better than Arkin, and he has been in many many movies, some as a similar character. (Most recently in JAKOB THE LIAR with Robin Williams). He is an excellent actor, even if typecast. Don't forget CATCH 22 as vintage Arkin and many of the sophisticated comedies he has been part of since.

RUTGER HAUER as Sasha, the Russian Captain. Rutger Hauer is an interesting actor. Of course, his stellar role (in his youth) was as the android in BLADE RUNNER. For romantics, he is the romantic interest in LADYHAWKE. For others, you may remember him best in BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, (in which he is howlingly funny as an overweight and world-weary vampire). If I had to bet, I would have suspected he would play a Nazi. As a Russian soldier, though, he is not only believable but impressive.

JOANNA PACULA as Luka (the love interest for Hauer). Beautiful, clever and admirable, she is believable. She is not innocent, but she is not bitter, and she has conflict, when she pretends the Russian is her "boyfriend" and ends up falling for him.

There were other actors in memorable roles, that I have not seen much since then. Chief among them is SIMON GREGOR who played young "Shlomo" the jeweller. This is an extraordinary young actor, who created a memorable , energetic and clever character. (In real life he went to Argentina after the war, and discovered several surviving SS officers.)


No frills, no word on the director, the film making or closed captioning. No Bios on the actors, or out-takes. There is no director's commentary. I like those little extras, but the movie will stand it's ground without them. The movie was made for television by a guy who had made several movies for television, starting in the sixties. Information on the director is not easy to acquire, even by my usual sources. I did find out that a few of the actual survivors served as technical advisors in the film.


I found this movie looking for Rutger Hauer flicks to review. (Everyone needs a goal) It is well put together, and the performances are superb. It's message is an important one. If you want entertainment, look elsewhere. If you want to see a movie you'll remember, watch this one.

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older