Director: Edward Zwick
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I have a complicated relationship/reaction to films about the Jewish experience during World War II. The vast majority of the stories deal with the Holocaust. It has even become something of a sick joke that making a good Holocaust film—fiction or documentary—is a fast track to an Oscar nomination. Certainly, an event so singular and dramatic has its own powerful magnetism to storytellers and viewers alike, and several of the best films of the past few years—Black Book, The Pianist—have added considerably to the depth and breadth of our understanding about this horrible time. Too often, however, filmmakers fail to understand that the Holocaust is not a fit topic for every type of film. Life Is Beautiful is a film that plays too fancy-free with the event. Schindler’s List milked it for cheap emotion that helped Gentiles in the audience feel good about themselves.
My personal problem with these films is that as a Jew I feel unwillingly chained to the Holocaust. Is there any way mainstream filmmaking can catch up to contemporary Jewish issues? A Price Above Rubies was a rare film about the problems of Hasidic Jewish women in America; I loved it and wondered why I couldn’t find anything else like it among English-language films. Why must we be buried year after year under the mantle of Supreme Victimhood? Why must our story be used to distance audiences from the holocausts of the present?
Last year, Hollywood offered us yet another Holocaust-related story called Defiance. The film is based on historian Nechama Tec’s book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, which tells the true story of the Bielski brothers of Belorussia who, in 1941, led a group of Jews from surrounding towns into hiding in the vast Naliboki Forest, where they lived, armed, and defended themselves—their numbers growing to 1,200—until the end of the war. A quote from a commenter on Amazon.com gives some hint about what is different about this film:
If one word could be used to describe the manner in which Jews are portrayed by mainstream history, it would be compliance. If one word could be used to describe the manner in which Jews are portrayed by Nechama Tec it would be, and is, Defiance. Her title is an apt one indeed.
The word “defiance” as applied to Jews is a difficult one to pin down. What does the film make of it? I’m not sure that defiance, as in the usual use of the word to describe Jews as stiffnecked about retaining their religion and customs, is right, nor is the implicit defiance of murder at the hands of the Nazis. Talk about the defiance of the stereotype of Jews not being willing to fight, of being delicate intellectuals and compliant women, and you’re getting closer. Ultimately, however, I’d say the Jews of this film defied the odds by surviving the harsh forest conditions for years.
Our heroes are Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber). Both strapping farmers, they discover that the local police, under orders from the Nazis, have been to their farm as part of their round-up of local Jews and have killed their father and mother. A young brother, Aron (George MacKay), hid successfully from the murderers. The Bielskis, later joined by brother Aseal (Jamie Bell), seek refuge in the woods. Soon, they stumble upon others like themselves. Tuvia goes to the home of a sympathetic Gentile to get food and weapons for the group. When the police show up looking for more Jews—and the bounty they will receive for them—Tuvia runs to the barn. There in the rafters are more Jews. Tuvia learns that the police chief (Sigitas Rackys) is responsible for his parents’ deaths. He takes the handgun and four bullets the farmer has given him and visits the police chief’s house. Pleading for his life, the police chief says he always looked the other way when the Bielskis went about smuggling for extra cash. “Ask your father.” “Ask him yourself,” says Tuvia, as he shoots the chief and his two sons.
The Bielskis ask for supplies from sympathetic locals, and failing that, steal what they need. They rob a milkman, who brings Soviet partisans to attack them. Zus and Tuvia have a major rift—Zus thinking they should have killed the milkman to prevent his betrayal when they had the chance, and Tuvia choosing a path he thinks will keep them human in a situation that could turn them all into animals in short order. Eventually, the brothers make a deal with the Red Army partisans to help them in exchange for protection. Zus and some of the other action-oriented men of the community leave to fight with the Soviets, while the Jews clean and repair their clothing and perform other support tasks back at the forest camp.
As the camp grows, romance sparks. Tuvia and Zus have lost their wives and children to the Nazis. They begin romances with new arrivals Lilkas (Alexa Davalos) and Bella (Iben Hjejle), respectively. Aseal falls for Chaya (Mia Wasikowska), and the pair gets married in a traditional Jewish ceremony presided over by schoolteacher Shamon (Allan Corduner). The forest environs must have made the community feel very safe indeed for them to dance and party to the sounds of the musicians of the group playing their violins and clarinets. Of course, more threats to their safety arise, most seriously in a bombing raid, with Nazi troops hot on their heels. The disheartened Tuvia must be roused by Aseal to lead the community through a swamp, hoping that the troops and tanks will not be able to track and follow them.
For me, there was an element of Swiss Family Robinson in the building of the log huts in which the community of Jews dwelled. But there was also a sense of the kibbutzim to follow in Israel, where I’m sure some of the survivors emigrated after the war. The stereotypical bad apples, inept sentry Lazar (Jonjo O’Neill), and intellectuals Shamon and Yitzchak (Iddo Goldberg) arguing over a game of chess played with pieces hewn from the surrounding trees suck some of the reality from the situation. It is reinfused, however, when the Jews fight over food after having gone without for days, and with the lovely, deadly flakes of the first snowfall of winter. Zus’ disillusionment with the Soviets after repeated anti-Semitic comments and attacks was inevitable, and sealed when the Red Army retreats with no consideration for the Jewish partisans. I loved that the cast actually learned Russian for scenes played between the Jews and Gentiles. (Among themselves, they spoke English.)
The acting is uneven. I didn’t like Craig, who never really emerges from the pose he adopts for Tuvia as a strong, but silent type, perhaps with a small messiah complex. He was, for me, the least interesting of the main characters. The women never emerged from their stock characters, and the intellectuals seemed there primarily to populate the film with Jewish types. However, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell really knock their performances out of the park. Schreiber is a believable strongman with an observant and knowing streak—though his Russian comrades respect his fighting ability and fearlessness, he always behaves slightly uncomfortable around them, knowing that their hatred of Jews is never far from the surface. Bell goes from young and sweet to impassioned and adult, forced by circumstances to grow up quickly. He is fiery and inspirational—everything Craig could and should have been had the script been less dedicated to making him a reluctant hero.
As with all new films, this one is too damn long, though I have to say that it isn’t bloated with filler. The true story unspooled over three years, so there was plenty of material to work with, though clearly, many scenes are fictitious or embellished for dramatic effect. Interestingly, this film has been more or less savaged by film critics and has been the object of attack by anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers on the Internet who prefer to paint the Bielskis as nothing but common thugs who brutalized the surrounding Gentile communities to get what they needed and wanted. The latters’ motives are clear, but I’m not so sure what the critics are so upset about. It’s not a great film, but it is an engrossing one that tells its unfamiliar story using the conventions of cinema to pretty good effect. I would have liked the characters to emerge more as individuals and the battles to be a little more sloppy and believable, as it was hard to really feel deeply for the Bielski partisans. Most of all, Craig kind of did this picture in with his flat performance.
Zwick was smart to shoot as near to location as possible, in Lithuania. With a script that doesn’t deviate too much from a standard action film with stock characterizations, what stands out as formidably real are the unforgiving winters, lack of access to a ready supply of food and medical care, and dangers from wolves, snakes, and other natural elements. Nature supplies the glue that bonds with the better aspects of this film. We might have had just another exploitative Holocaust film without this dispassionate “observer” of the Bielski partisans in action. Nonetheless, I think I’d be pretty happy not to view another of its genre ever again.