Survival Tactics


Yehuda Lerner escaped from eight Nazi camps in six months before he arrived at Sobibor, where he participated, at age 16, in the only successful death camp uprising of the Holocaust. In 1979, Claude Lanzmann interviewed Lerner, intending to make the story of the Sobibor insurrection part of his monumental Shoah. But because Lerner’s story countered the prevailing belief that Jews went to the gas chambers without resistance, Lanzmann felt that it deserved a film of its own.

Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M. (the title pinpoints the exact moment of the uprising) is a spare, formally ingenious, journalistically acute piece of filmmaking. Lanzmann cuts between interview material and contemporary footage, which follows the route Lerner traveled. Although the sites of various camps and ghettos have been prettified with parks, small museums, and discreet monuments, trains still rumble along the same tracks as when they carried Jews to their deaths, and flocks of screeching geese, gathered on the grounds of a former death camp, are reminders of how the Germans used them to camouflage the cries of the dying in the gas chamber. “Museums and monuments institute oblivion as much as remembrance,” says Lanzmann in his grave, gravelly voice at the end of his introduction. “Let us now listen to Yehuda Lerner’s living words.”

Lanzmann’s line of questioning allows Lerner to tell the extraordinary story of his survival while zeroing in on the circumstances that allowed a corps of 20 Jews to overcome their captors and force the immediate closing of a camp where 250,000 had been murdered. While there had been uprisings in the ghettos and isolated instances of resistance in the camps, the efficiency and bravery of the men who executed the Sobibor insurrection were without precedent. The leader, Alexander Petchersky, had been a career officer in the Soviet army and most of the group were Russian-Jewish POWs. Their military experience had prepared them for what Lanzmann describes as “a reappropriation of power and violence.” Lerner had no training, but as he had already proved with his multiple escapes, he preferred fighting for his freedom to waiting for an inevitable death. In the chaos that followed the uprising, Lerner fled into the nearby forest, and, as in a fairy tale, lay down and fell asleep.

Set during the Gulf War in a Tel Aviv neighborhood teeming with Russian immigrants, Arik Kaplun’s smart, scrappy romantic comedy Yana’s Friends displays an insouciance rarely found in Israeli film. When newcomer Yana (Evelyn Kaplun) is abandoned by her husband, her tearful face attracts the attention of her neighbor Eli (Nir Levi), a professional videographer with a taste for voyeurism. Yana’s delicate blond looks and her desperate plight move Eli in ways that the beautiful models he beds never do. Under the threat of Scud missile attacks, they hide out in Eli’s sealed room, where, with gas masks in place, they make wild love.

Handheld camerawork gives the film the friendly, intimate quality of a home movie, and street scenes, seemingly caught on the fly, expose the conditions of the immigrant Russian population (now grown to over a million). Something of a scandal when first released, Yana’s Friends went on to win 10 Israeli Academy awards. In addition to being a great dating film, it might well please the elders of the family as well.

Twenty-eight filmmakers are included in this year’s edition of “Views From the Avant-Garde” (Walter Reade, October 13-14). Familiar names abound: Robert Beavers, Stan Brakhage, Andrew Noren, Nathaniel Dorsky, Leslie Thornton, Lewis Klahr, Peter Tscherkassky, Scott Stark. Few films were available for preview, but on the basis of those that were, Robert Beavers’s The Ground is not to be missed. A master of cinematic rhythm and a maker of astoundingly beautiful images, Beavers has produced about a half dozen films that are at once ascetic and sensuous. Despite their restraint, they have an immediate kinetic impact—they go right to your solar plexus and change the rate of your breathing—but they also engage your mind with their subtle deployment of metaphor. The Ground is built around a single repeated gesture—the filmmaker gently cupping his hand against his naked chest and then rotating it outward, as if he were alternately cradling and releasing a small bird. The cleft between his breasts rhymes with the shadowy crevice in a nearby stone wall, and although there’s nothing in his hand, we can hear the whir of bird wings behind the stones. The Ground makes a parallel between filmmaking and stone cutting: Both depend not only on chiseling pieces so that they fit together, but also in leaving space enough for something (mind, spirit, soul) to enter or take flight.