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Film / Escape from Sobibór

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Escape from Sobibór is a 1987 British Made-for-TV Movie that dramatizes the 1943 escape of over three hundred prisoners from the Sobibór extermination camp. Inmates who were selectively spared for their skills in manufacturing material goods plot their escape from the camp, in part utilizing the skills they possess to make it happen. The film stars stars Alan Arkin, Joanna Pacuła and Rutger Hauer; it is based on the book of the same written by Richard Rashke, and camp survivor Thomas Blatt (who helped Rashke with his book) served as a consultant.

The 2018 Russian film Sobibor, starring Konstantin Khabensky and Christopher Lambert, covers the same subject.

Escape from Sobibór contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Awful Truth: Moses discovers this about the camp when he sees the gas chambers for the first time.
  • At Least I Admit It: Hurst is a sadistic bigot but he seems to have no illusions about what they're doing, speaking sarcastically about how they're doing their duty and how it takes "heroism" to turn on a gas valve.
  • Badass Longcoat: Sacha and several Russian prisoners who help kill the guards war long coats.
  • Based on a True Story:
  • Bearer of Bad News: Leon and Samuel have to tell Itzhak that his wife and son were murdered shortly after they arrived. He doesn't take it well.
    • The same goes for Shlomo after Moses tells him the Awful Truth.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Shlomo (although he doesn't realize it at first) saves Moses' life by declaring him to be his assistant goldsmith. Possibly averted since it is not known what happened to Moses after the brothers escaped.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Out of the six hundred prisoners that the camp's underground intended to help escape, only three hundred made it to the forest — and those were the ones that survived the initial escape. Only sixty or so of those escapees were confirmed to have survived the war. The vast majority died in the weeks following the escape; they were either caught by German search squads, handed over to the Germans by Polish collaborators (if not outright killed by the latter), or vanished without a trace (e.g. Luka and Moses).
    • While it was not shown in the film, the real Sasha Pechersky successfully fled to the USSR, but was forced to abandon his companions and was later conscripted to a penal battalion, a standard practice for escaped Soviet POWs. He was released after recounting his ordeal to an officer, who encouraged him to tell his story, and later contributed to documentation of Nazi crimes. Leon Felhendler meanwhile survived to see the Nazis driven out of Poland, only to be murdered by a group of antisemitic Polish nationalists a month before the war ended.
  • Blatant Lies: Blatant to the audience, anyway. The Nazis tell all new arrivals that they're being sent to the "showers" for decontamination.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Deconstructed with the Kapos; Kapo Berliner provides the most straight example. Others though are good men who help their fellow prisoners, with the privileges which they use for aiding the escape. The rest at least don't stand in its way.
  • Composite Character:
    • Some of Kapo Porchek's actions during the escape were actually done by his brother (another prisoner) in real-life according to the book.
    • There's also only one guard named Wolfe when in real life there were two brothers with that name at the camp.
    • Shlomo saves the lives of a cousin and nephew along with his brother Moses in real-life but Moses has the role of all three.
  • Concentration Camp: The primary, very unfriendly setting.
  • Conveniently Timed Guard: One of the guards goes into a senior officer's office and discovers him by spotting blood and following its trail. This marks the turning point of the escape when they had previously gotten along without widespread discovery.
  • Death by Materialism: The prisoners use a fancy leather coat to lure one SS guard into a trap. They even use the coat to restrain him while they're killing him.
  • Defiant to the End: Naomi spits at Wagner's offer to spare her while killing her baby, both figuratively and literally. She holds her baby and smiles in defiance as he shoots her.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: Rooms full of possessions belonging to the people sent to the "shower".
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: One of the Nazi officers expresses relief that his wife and children escaped the latest British bombing of Hamburg.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Sergeant Wagner; Captain Reichleitner.
  • Final Solution: The real purpose of the camp.
  • Gas Chamber: The film's Awful Truth, a means by which most of the murdered prisoners die.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The film uses this whenever a character is murdered. One exception is when the Nazis execute 26 prisoners for trying to escape (actually only 13 tried to escape; they were forced to choose the other 13 to die. This was to further dissuade any future escape attempts) and tell the others that anyone who averts his/her eyes will be executed. The scene is shot from a long range though.
  • Great Escape: Over half the prisoners of Sobibor manage to escape by killing the SS guards and seizing weapons, despite it being discovered, with many killed. It's renowned for being most successful of all escapes from the Nazi death camps.
  • Hate Sink: All of the Nazis qualify, being piggish, bigoted thugs who bully and terrorize the Jews for petty reasons. But even among them, Sergeant Wagner sticks out. He's a cruel, cold-blooded sadist who doesn't hesitate to murder anyone, at one point shooting an infant. In the extended version, Wagner is miffed that Shlomo and his brother are managing to avoid the worst of the suffering in the camp, and so he whips Shlomo out of sheer sadism.
  • Heroic BSoD: Itzhak goes through this when told of his family's death. He snaps out of it.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: When the guards demand thirteen people be executed along with the 13 attempted escapees, and force the escapees to pick them, there's one man who steps forward from the crowd without being picked, to save someone else's life, and keep one of the escapees from having to make such an awful choice.
  • Hope Spot:
    • Itzhak motions for his wife to claim to be a seamstress in the line and for a moment it looks like she (and maybe their son) will be saved but the guards pass over her due to her young child and send them to the gas chambers with the others.
    • When the prisoners on a wood cutting detail hear shouts that two men by the river getting water have gotten away, several of them try to make a run for it themselves. The guards are more alert at the moment and they are inside the fence (although the gate is open). The Kapo are smart enough to grab a few men and stop them from running, and those who try are caught and executed along with several others to make an example.
  • Foreshadowing: In a scene cut from the uncut version, Morris the carpenter suggests making some ladders for the escape and they turn up in the climax, being used to make it over sections of the fence.
  • How Dare You Die on Me!: Leon is visibly distraught that several people are too worn down to try and run during the escape attempt and spends several seconds racing along them vainly trying to prod them to run.
  • Karma Houdini: Largely averted by the camp guards, who were either killed later during the war or prosecuted at various points after the war. Sergeant Wagner was found in hiding in Brazil. The Brazilian government refused to extradite him, but he was eventually found stabbed to death. The local courts ruled it a suicide.
  • Kick the Dog: Quite often (sometimes in the form of siccing dogs on prisoners), but one sad example is the thirteen woodcutters caught trying to escape are forced to each pick the man who will be executed with them as an example. When they try to refuse they are told that far more people will be executed unless they go and personally pick thirteen more people to be killed. There is also a threat that any prisoner who looks away during the execution will be shot with the 26.
  • Killed Offscreen: Several prominent characters, such as Balje, Porchek and Mundek the tailor are shot off-screen during the escape, with their bodies just being seen lying on the ground briefly as things die down.
  • The Lancer: Samuel is Leon's most trusted ally and advisor at the start of the film, although once the Russian arrive Sascha arguably supplants him in that role.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The Nazi guards' reactions to the uprising.
    • Also the leaders of the revolt when SS reinforcements unexpectedly arrive at the camp on the planned day of the escape. They are forced to postpone the escape until the next day.
  • Released to Elsewhere: The Nazis try this, but the prisoners selected to work learn the truth pretty quickly.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Sergeant Beckmann is walking towards the barracks (where a trap is waiting) when he pauses and then walks in the opposite direction. He isn't aware of the escape attempt at the time, but why he avoids falling into the trap is unclear.
  • Rousing Speech: Leon and Sasha give one to the prisoners just before they break out.
  • Sadistic Choice: After a group of prisoners is caught trying to escape, Sergeant Wagner not only has them publicly executed, but he forces each of them to choose a "partner" from the other prisoners to die with them. He threatens to have fifty random prisoners executed if they don't obey.
  • Say Your Prayers: At least one prisoner who chooses to stand and wait for death rather than running for the fence during the escape attempt is reciting a prayer.
  • Slave Mooks: The Kapos, who are also prisoners. Also to a certain extent the Ukrainian guards.note 
  • Smart People Play Chess: Leon and several other leaders of the escape plot hang around a chessboard on occasion.
  • Snake Whip: One of the guards orders Shlomo and Moses to make a gold engraving of a twisted snake on the handle of his whip.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Strauss plays over loudspeakers while people are marched to the "showers."
  • Suddenly Shouting: Courtesy of Sergeant Wagner.
    Wagner: "There will be no more escape attempts in this camp. I'll repeat that: THERE WILL BE NO MORE ESCAPE ATTEMPTS IN THIS CAMP!"
  • Those Wacky Nazis: The main antagonists. (Though "wacky" may not exactly be the right word here...)
  • Uncertain Doom: Of the three men who try to run away from the camp in the first scene one is blown up by a mine and the guards are seen firing after the other two but (at least in some cuts of the film) it’s never confirmed they gunned the two down before they reached the trees.
  • The Unfought: Sadistic SS officer Gustav Wagner survived the uprising unharmed, due to being on holidays at that time. In fact the uprising is largely successful due to his absence. In real life, Wagner escaped to Brazil under a fake identity, but was found stabbed to death 1980 as a wanted fugitive and unrepentant Nazi. However, Shlomo Szmajzner, who migrated to Brazil after the war, managed to identify him shortly before his death.
  • Unrelated in the Adaptation: Leon and another prisoner, Esther, are cousins by marriage but this is never mentioned in the film.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: There's a certain gap between number of confirmed prisoners who died during or after the escape and the number absolutely confirmed to have survived the war. Of the characters in the film Luka and Moses might have survived but it seems unlikely given that they never made themselves known or tried to contact anyone else after the war.
    • Sergeant Wagner disappears halfway through the film, as he took a holiday at the time of the uprising. In real life, he helped to dismantle the remains of Sobibor and found work at other concentration camps until the end of the war, where he fled to Brazil and was found stabbed to death in 1980.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Shlomo calls out the other prisoners for working for the people who killed their families. Leon responds with I Did What I Had to Do.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Sergeant Wagner shoots Naomi's baby after killing her. In addition to that there is an agonizing number of close-ups of oblivious little kids getting off the troop transport at the beginning, soon to be gassed without any qualms.
  • You Killed My Father: Inverted: Itzhak quietly states "My wife and child..." before hitting an elderly guard in the head with an axe. Subverted with the Szmajzner brothers, who are motivated in their escape by anger at the Nazis for their families deaths, but don't state this before taking down the guards.
  • Zerg Rush: The final escape has the inmates charging at the guards in masse and knocking down the fences.