Based on true events, this harrowing account of the mass escape from the extermination camp at Sobibor in 1943 is as gripping as it is devastating to watch. Alan Arkin, Joanna Pakula, Rutger Hauer and Hartmut Becker star in this made-for-TV movie, which received a Golden Globe Award in 1987.

The story begins with a brief prologue of sorts during which we are performed that out of the three German death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor, it was the latter which nowadays is the least well know. The fact that after the escape, SS Chief Himmler ordered the camp closed and subsequently it was bulldozed to the ground, with trees planted over it, might have something to do with it.

After the prologue we find ourselves among the horror that is Sobibor, guarded by the most evil Nazis imaginable: SS-Hauptscharführer Wagner (Hartmut Becker), SS-Oberscharführer Frenzel (Kurt Raab), SS-Oberscharführer Bauer (Klaus Grünberg) and many more. In cohorts with the Nazis are Sonderdienst Ukrainian and Volksdeutsche guards, though not necessarily by choice. In the camp, train after train arrives with ever more Jewish families who are told they have come to Sobibor to work hard but live through the war. Utter bullshit of course as anyone knows. SS-Führer Wagner and his cronies eagerly separate the frightened families – first they separate the men from the women, then the young children from the adolescent children. Then they are all asked whether they have learned a trade and those lucky enough to be goldsmiths, tailors, shoemakers, seamstresses are brought to one side of the camp where they are allocated their future ‘workshops’ while the rest of the arrivals are brought to a different part of the camp… unbeknownst to the Jewish inmates with skills this ‘other side’ consists of gas chambers and crematoriums though at first the new arrivals have no idea as to why the chimney keep belching out smoke day and night.

Among the new Polish-Jews in Sobibor are 15-year old Shlomo Szmajzner (Simon Gregor) and his younger brother, a young woman called Luka (Joann Pakula) and several others. While Shlomo and his brother are appointed as goldsmiths for the Nazis, Luka ends up in as a seamstress together with other women, among them a young mother who desperately tries to hide her new-born baby from the Nazis under a pile of rags. It can only be a matter of time before the baby’s cries give the hiding game away and both mother and baby are ruthlessly shot dead by Wagner in one of the film’s most horrific scenes. Then there is elderly Leon Feldhendler (Alan Arkin), a long-term prisoner of the camp who, outwardly at least, seems to have become numb to the horrors around him but who’s not given up hope of escaping Sobibor. Meanwhile, Shlomo and some of the tailors learn about the fate of their remaining families when they are forced to sift through countless piles of clothes, jewellery, toys and other belongings – realising that some of these items were the possessions of father, mother, sister… and finally awaking to the grim truth that their remaining families are not “working the fields on the other side of the camp” but that they all have been gassed shortly after their arrival.

As the daily terror continues and the inmates are constantly subjected to unspeakable terror and sadism courtesy of the Nazis (torture, beatings, execution, rape, intimidation etc) things are finally set to take a turn with the arrival of some Russian prisoners, among them Lieutnant Pechersky (Rutger Hauer) who quickly bonds with Feldhendler. Both men agree that it is high time to hatch an escape plan though others, although taken with the idea, deem it impossible due to the double- and triple barbwire fences around the camp, not to mention the many human and canine watchdogs inside the camp. Nonetheless Pechersky, who – despite being happily married with kids – has begun an affair with Luka to distract the Nazis from his secret meetings with other inmates agreeing to escape – draws up a carefully constructed plan with Pechersky. Time is not on their side as they all realise that once the trains stop rolling in then goldsmiths, tailors, seamstresses and shoemakers alike will have outlived their usefulness and end up in the gas chambers just like all the others. But luck is on their side when the camp’s Commandant and some other Nazis need to leave Sobibor for a few days thus providing Pechersky, Feldhendler and the rest to put plan into action by first killing some SS officers lured into the prisoners barracks…

The climax is of course a nailbiter, with some 300 out of the 600 inmates managing to escape to the nearby woods. A voiceover narration by the acclaimed American journalist and war correspondent Howard K. Smith then informs us of the fate of some of the survivors: Luka managed to hide in the woods for days but then was never seen or heard of again. Feldhendler survives the war but shortly after is killed by anti-Semitic Poles. Pechersky made it back to the Soviet lines and, having survived the war, was united with his family in Russia while young Shlomo Szmajzner first joined some partisans and then also made it to safety – eventually emigrating to Brazil. What became of his younger brother or whether he ever made it out of Poland is not known.
Incidentally, the script is based upon Richard Rashke’s book of the same name as well as the book ‘Inferno in Sobibor’ by former inmate Stanislaw ‘Shlomo’ Szmajzner.

ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR is now available in Blu-ray in a new 2K restoration.