Tales of historic bravery

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 January, 1998, 12:00am

One of the criticisms of Steven Spielberg's mega-hit Schindler's List was that it was a film about a German helping Jews - rather than Jews helping themselves - to escape death in Nazi camps. Why had he not chosen one of the many stories of Jewish heroism instead? One of these had already been made into a very good, but little-seen film called Escape From Sobibor (World, 9.30pm).

It tells in moving, harrowing detail of the mass breakout in 1943 from a camp called Sobibor, in a Polish forest.

The escape was led by a Jewish Red Army officer called Sasha Pechersky (played by Rutger Hauer). He organised virtually the whole camp in an escape plan whereby they would turn on their jailers at a set signal and kill them with whatever means they had, put on their uniforms and run for it.

Hauer has made some howlers in the past, but here he is quite wonderful as a man determined not to become a victim, even when the odds are stacked against him.

The real Sasha's calling cry to his fellow inmates was 'we are not allowed to give up life . . . we must live in order to take our revenge . . . no one can do our work for us.' After the war he pursued the prison camp's guards for decades until eventually some were brought to trial in 1965 in the USSR, and in Germany in 1966. Ten were hanged for their part in what happened that day.

The Sobibor breakout was a great humiliation to the Nazis. When the story of the escape finally seeped out and was reported in the world's media, Himmler sent orders for the whole camp, and all its remaining inmates to be killed immediately. The camp itself was destroyed.

The Sobibor experience was also sobering for the Nazis because (although it was not a complete victory for the escapees) it showed that if the Jews ever decided to fight back en masse they would be fearsome opponents.

As far as I know, the story told in the gentle war movie (and how many times can you say that) A Midnight Clear (Pearl, 1.50pm) is not a true one. In A Midnight Clear, Ethan Hawke stars as a very young sergeant who gets sent on a vague and potentially dangerous reconnaissance mission with the remains of his original squad.

It's just before Christmas, 1944, it's snowing, and the soldiers don't really know where they are, or where the enemy are. At first they are thrown into a panic when they hear strange voices in the surrounding woods, until they realise what the German voices are saying means 'sleep well'.

The enemy are as lost and desperate as they are and the story turns into one about the things the two sides have in common.

Thirty years before, in December 1914, the same thing happened in real life when German and British troops began singing carols to one another in the trenches.

They had agreed on a truce for one day, and even held a football match in no-man's land.

ATV is screening a Cantonese adaptation of Pygmalion (Home, 7.50pm) tonight - the version that was staged at the Academy for Performing Arts (APA), last November.

The producers had planned to translate Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, the play's musical version which is probably better-known locally. But they discovered that one of the copyright restrictions was that the show could only be performed in English.

So they decided to go for a Cantonese version of the George Bernard Shaw play instead. Tonight's film stars Tse Kwan-ho as Professor Higgins, and Chiu Woon as Eliza, who in this version has a thick Taishan accent that Higgins hopes to train her out of.