Directed by: Claude Lanzmann.
Written by: Claude Lanzmann
Yehuda Lerner was a teenage Jew in WWII, who was taken to, and escaped from, 8 different Concentration Camps during the war. During the filming of Shoah, Lanzmann interviewed Lerner, but felt his story didn’t fit in with the narrative he was telling – which was more about the dead than about the survivors. But Lanzmann thought Lerner’s story was worth telling – particularly his recollection of the uprising in the Sobibor concentration camp on October 14, 1943 – when the Jews hatched a complicated plan to lure the Nazis who worked at the camp to the various buildings, where they could be killed one by one. The Jews then fled into the forest to fight for their survival.
Stylistically, the film is very much like Shoah – with long takes of the interview of Lerner, with Lanzmann’s constant, questions probing for more details intercut with shots of the Sobibor camp as it appears today. The key difference is, of course, instead of many voices telling the story, in this film we have only one. Lerner recounts the events of that day, often in minute by minute detail. Lerner wasn’t at the camp long when the plan was hatched – he was shipped there after he escaped from another camp and was recaptured. When Lanzmann asks why he was never killed in all those escapes and recaptures – Lerner doesn’t really have an answer other to say that he was lucky. Had different German forces caught him, he very well could have been hung on the spot. That never happened though.
At its best, the film is nail bitingly suspenseful. The best sequence is undeniably the central one to the movie – when Lerner tells precisely what he and his cohorts did to kill one Nazi, in an exacting but messy fashion, cleaned up, and then killed another not more than 5 minutes later. They knew the Nazis where extremely punctual – they never arrived a minute early or late – and that used that against them – scheduling one to arrive at 4 pm and the next to arrive at 4:05. Any shorter, and they wouldn’t have time to clean up, any longer and they risk word getting out at the simultaneously killings. Lanzmann lingers over this sequence – stretching out each minute well beyond its actually running time, as he wants every detail.
At 102 minutes, the film is the longest of the three “outtakes” documentaries included on the Shoah Blu-Ray (the fourth, The Last of the Unjust clocks in at almost 4 hours). The film needs most of that length to do justice to the story it is telling. However, I also feel that in many ways, the film is not as effective as the other two. This is the only film Lanzmann has made that is essentially a triumph – not a tragedy – and yet he has made the film the same way. The long takes of the present day Sobibor have the sense overwhelming sense of tragedy as the other films – but that doesn’t work with the films tone. Neither does the long (10 minutes) list of names that ends that film of all those who died at Sobibor. Yes, we should remember all those who died, but at a certain point, a list of names with no context is simply a list of names. This isn’t their story, but the story of the uprising and the victory the prisoners got against their captors. To make a better film, Lanzmann should have found a different tone for the parts of the movie that are not interview segments by Lerner.
But these are mainly minor complaints. Lanzmann has dedicated decades of his life to documenting the Holocaust. Shoah is his masterpiece, but these outtakes movies provide more context, different stories. Yes, he should have found a slightly different way to tell this particular story – but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a fascinating, intense film in its own right.