Belzec Review

Belzec Review

Jay Weissberg Variety Magazine

The horrifically efficient Nazi death camp Belzec was in operation for less than one year, but in that time witnessed the murder of at least 600,000 Jews. Once the Soviet counterattacks began, the SS eliminated all traces of the camp, and the name Belzec faded from the collective conscience. Novice helmer Guillaume Moscovitz is determined, however, that its infamous gas chambers not be forgotten, and in "Belzec" he's created a chilling account that's as much about remembrance as it is about the past. Although Jewish fests will be its natural home, docu deserves a wider distribution.

Belzec became a death factory soon after the Nazis devised the Final Solution, on a par with the better-known camps of Sobibor and Treblinka, all in eastern Poland. Unlike some places that presented the illusion of a work prison, Belzec went about its goals in a clear-eyed and open manner.

Operations began in March 1942: In those opening weeks 63,000 people were exterminated, but that figure is nothing compared to the approximately 330,000 Jews murdered between August and September, most just hours after being herded out of the train cars.

By December, with the Russians closing in, the Nazis shut down the camp, plowing up the buildings and planting trees to disguise both the architectural remains as well as the massive death pits. The place is now a patch of tranquility, where wind rustles the leaves and teens hang out in its sylvan setting. Only an out-dated Communist-era marker hinted at the site's former tenants.

Moscovitz arrived in Belzec once a systematic excavation had begun -- 31 mass graves were discovered, but due to the sandy quality of the soil, ground shifts mean that the entire area is covered with bones and ashes, the hidden remains of the hundreds of thousands gassed to death and later burned in ovens.

This contrast between the tree-covered plain and the death buried just below the surface is what intrigues Moscovitz. Much of the handsomely lensed docu is composed of interviews with locals, people who remember seeing the trains pulling up (the camp was built just 1,500 feet from the town's railroad station), hearing the screams, and, of course, smelling the foul air of burning corpses.

It's refreshing to finally hear villagers who don't claim to have been ignorant of what went on inside the barbed wire fences, although a few don't seem especially traumatized by what was happening in their backyard.

The only Jewish survivors of Belzec were those men forced to usher the prisoners into the gas chambers and later transport the bodies to the pits. Moscovitz makes superb use of their chilling written testimonies.

But even more devastating is listening to the sole living Jewish witness, Braha Rauffman. As a 7-year-old, she was hidden by a villager for 20 months, in a makeshift hole covered with firewood that didn't even allow her space to fully stretch her legs. Her testimony, almost unbearable to hear, contrasts sharply with the more generic recollections of the townspeople.

Camera (color), Guillaume Schiffman, Stephane Massis, Guillaume Genini, Carlo Varini, Malick Brahimi; editors, Lise Beaulieu, Marie Liotard, Claire Le Villain; sound (Dolby Digital), Krzysztof Rzepecki, Dariusz Gorski; sound editor, Beatrice Wicz. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (International Critics' Week -- Special Event), Sept. 8, 2005. Running time: 112 MIN. (Polish, French, Hebrew dialogue)

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