Friday, December 10, 2010

DEFIANCE (2008): Surviving the Holocaust

I’m almost tempted to say there are too many movies about the Holocaust.  The reason I say that is because Hollywood really has so little to say on such an important subject that’s not irrelevant or insulting.  Recent movies like The Reader and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas manipulate the storylines in such ways that we almost become sidetracked from remembering what individuals were the real victims in the concentration camps.  That one’s childlike innocence was disrupted by disturbing events would be compelling enough in an ordinary movie, but it’s not sufficient when blithely making reference to an event where a third of the European Jews were exterminated in an extremely short period of time.  We have deniers making light enough of the events already (namely President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran) without having Hollywood trying to sidestep the issue of what really happened.  Fortunately, we have had scholarly books written upon the subject.  Unfortunately, we have movie directors that believe they need to improve upon the story as if what really occurred was not compelling enough.  Defiance is really a much better movie than either of the two mentioned above.  It at least keeps its focus on a central story of Polish Jews resisting the Nazi’ authorities with only a few diversions into the typical Hollywood faire, i.e., include in the film a couple of unnecessary romances, add a few manufactured discussions about the existence of God between a Rabbi and a young intellectual, and engage in some military action scenes that are just slightly better than ones shown in Rambo, etc.  But the active resistance to evil in these scenes is still better portrayed than in most movies because the lead characters are neither romanticized nor lacking in complexity.

Anyway, Defiance is based upon the remarkable story of the Bielski’ Brothers resistance to the Nazis in a Belorussia forest that may have saved well over a thousand lives.  Tuvia (Daniel Craig) was the oldest and probably wisest of the three brothers.  The movie very deliberately portrays him as a modern day Moses put in charge of leading many fugitives through the wilderness and often forced to endure much grumbling and abuse from those he is attempting to save.  Zus (Liev Schreiber), slightly younger than Tuvia, is more concerned with taking revenge upon the Nazis than he is in surviving the persecution, and Zus even allies himself with the Soviet “Red” Army which, in itself, was populated with many anti-Semitic individuals in its ranks, because he (Zus) understood that the Soviet leadership were the ones most capable of inflicting casualties upon the Germans.  And finally there was Asael (Jamie Bell), who adored both brothers but was also torn because neither Tuvia nor Zus seemed capable of coming to terms with each other.  (There was also a fourth brother that was much too young to add any dramatic element to the storyline.)  After the Nazis murdered almost everyone close to them, the brothers flee to the Naliboki Forest where they at least had some options for survival.  At first, Tuvia takes part on the guerilla raids they make on various strategic areas occupied by the Nazis (in particular in Belarus), but after shooting the chief of Police (and his sons) responsible for the death of the Bielski’s parents, Tuvia becomes more introspective and decides that he would rather save more Jewish refugees than kill more Germans.  For quite some time after this, Tuvia and Zus have little contact with each other.

Both brothers are quite successful with their separate objectives.  Zus somehow manages to outfight the German commandos, and Tuvia manages to set up a community to house the refugees in the forest.  Of course, the community is frequently required to relocate, but through Tuvia’s leadership the Nazis are not successful in wiping the Jewish refugees out.  When it becomes obvious to Tuvia that he needs the assistance of Zus to keep the Nazis at a distance and when it becomes obvious to Zus that the anti-Semitic Russians were only interested in him as a fighter and not as a Jew fleeing persecution, the two brothers reunite and save the entire community from a Nazi raid when it appears that all is lost.  We learn in the final credits that Asael was killed in action after being conscripted into the Soviet Army, but that Tuvia and Zus were able to survive the war and immigrate to the United States where for years they ran a successful trucking company.  Thus this amazing story that very much is deserving of being filmed and told was concluded.

If the movie generated any real controversy, it concerned the selection of the blue-eyed Daniel Craig playing the role of a Jewish leader.  No doubt that there were other actors that could have played the role, but this did not seem like terrible casting on the part of the moviemakers.  (Perhaps ever since seeing Ricardo Montalban cast as an American Indian I’ve become resigned to the fact that this is the way the film industry hires its actors.)  It probably would have been poor casting if it required Craig to smile a lot, but that was not necessary in this type of film.  And despite some of the slick Hollywood touches, director, producer and screenwriter Edward Zwick never took such liberties with the film that would do injustice to the storyline.  Compared to the almost unwatchable film, Legends of the Fall, that Zwick earlier had directed, the film Defiance was a refreshing change of pace.  The film was 137 minutes long, which is apparently the typical length of a Zwick film, but it never felt like the movie was too long.  There was some repetition of harrowing scenes, but I imagine that there was too much repetition of similar type of scenes for those actual survivors in the forest.  And the acting was decent - at least among the two leads.  The loutish behavior of those in the Russian or German army that is almost typecast in every movie of this type I guess should not have surprised me.  Zwick is neither the most subtle of directors or of screenwriters, but for this type of movie I was actually pleased with the lack of subtlety.

Frankly, one of the most intelligent of movies I’ve ever seen on the Holocaust was QB VII, based on a Leon Uris novel back in the 1970s and turned into a television mini-series starring Ben Gazarra.  I’ve not been impressed with too many movies on this topic since.  I think movie makers need a bit more humility when speaking about the enormous issues surrounding such a theme.  Most particularly, I was not impressed with Sophie’s Choice that, in my opinion, would have to go down as one of the most overwrought and lackluster of melodramas ever filmed.  (I haven’t seen the film in twenty years, but I doubt I would change my mind if I saw it now.  The love affair between Sophie and the young and neurotic southern writer was thrown in to deflect our attention from the depressing nature of the film.  Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t depressing because it concerned the Nazi death camps.  It was depressing because one had the impression that the director of this movie, Alan J. Pakula, was incapable of projecting to a movie audience what joy truly was to begin with.)  Defiance is unique.  Perhaps for the only time in film history, Jewish characters – recipients of Nazi persecution – are revealed as being anything but first and foremost victims.  Even in a movie like Schindler’s List, where 1,200 Jewish workers are saved, we watched the Holocaust survivors passively awaiting their doom until being miraculously rescued by a near saint.  Tuvia and Zus, whatever their separate motivations might have been, were active heroes that expressed a full range of human attributes – and not just those we traditionally associate with martyrs.  The two are at times vengeful and even blood thirsty.  They can be petty and even jealous of each other’s influence and success.  They could be all of these things and yet still care for their own people.  If ever either of them was ever helpless, it was not a resigned helplessness.  They would have been too ashamed of their own impotence if at anytime they failed to act and allow the Nazis to achieve victory over them.  (I’m not suggesting that every survivor of the camp had the same options of Tuvia or Zus or the Jews that died in the camp could have done more to change their destiny.  I am suggesting that Hollywood is guilty of unintentionally stereotyping Jewish survivors in films as ones always resigned to their fate.)  If the film was flawed by too many cinematic tricks, it still gave the Jewish people a sort of dignity achieved by allowing the two key characters to be complete and whole human beings with all of the virtues and vices normal to our species.  They were not waiting to be saved by others, even by the divine, and therefore were not cast as “types.”

So despite its flaws (which are not as numerous as some reviewers might like to suggest), Defiance was a movie well worth seeing and is very comparable to The Mission, the 1986 movie that is now almost forgotten (and off-handedly dismissed by Roger Ebert - though The Mission told an intelligent story and starred Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons).  I think Defiance was negatively reviewed by some critics only because it was atypical of the type of movies showing the survivors of the Nazi camps.  It showed that Jewish survivors were capable of great heroics, too.

August 6, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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