Defiance (2008)

Director: Edward Zwick

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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.

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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.

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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, he 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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

  • Greg F spoke:
    26th/07/2009 to 10:28 pm

    I can imagine Craig doing the film in as you say. His style of acting seems perfectly suited to Bond or the assassin of Munich than a nuanced lead who must carry a movie.
    But here’s what I’m really curious about: Schindler’s List, particularly your views on it that is. Twice now I’ve read you make a disparaging statement against it. As a well known Anti-Spielberg agitator I heartily recommend you put up a full review of it so we can all get angry and scream at each other for a few hours one day. It’ll be like a TOERIFC post. But seriously, as lukewarm and uninspired as I have always been with Spielberg (but I don’t outright hate him as Bill and Fox claim I do), I certainly acknowledge his skills and talents as well as his flaws. I’d like to know why you thought it was going for cheap exploitation and I feel that would be better served in a full review rather than response to a comment. However, if you can say it in a comment, please do.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/07/2009 to 2:26 am

    Greg – I actually thought as I was writing this that I should do a full review of Schindler, but that would necessitate me watching it again – something I will never do. I, too, recognize Spielberg’s enormous talent as a storyteller and craftsman, and I don’t hate him or everything he’s done. I am a fan of Minority Report, for example. There’s usually something good to great in all the films of his I’ve seen. Not Schindler’s List, though. Despite having a story filled with emotion on its own, Spielberg still seems to feel the need to manipulate audiences’ reactions. He hit the unsubtle pedal and floored it. Putting a little girl in a faded red dress as a symbol of the dying flower of a way of life – the generations of European Jewry that will never blossom and grow. Not to mention she’s a child – what haven’t people of that era used children for in making their points?
    Building tension in putting all those women in a shower and have – WATER! – rain down on them. How dishonest! Having Fiennes’ character a full-blown psychopath takes away from the banality of evil that characterized the Nazi death machine. Not plucking, but tugging and breaking every heartstring with that maudlin score. Maybe worst of all was Neeson’s breakdown over not saving more Jews. How pandering to a Gentile population whose parents and grandparents looked the other way while Jews were being slaughtered and denied safe haven in America. It’s the whole Reader’s Digest philosophy – 8 to 80, anyone can do it, makes you feel good. Ultimately, Spielberg wants people to feel good about themselves. Great. Make a story about a cuddly alien instead. Leave these poor, murdered millions alone.

  • Rod spoke:
    27th/07/2009 to 6:54 am

    I don’t agree with any of those criticisms. But you knew that.

  • Greg F spoke:
    27th/07/2009 to 7:35 am

    Rod, you write the review! Seriously, then I can see your points of which I’m sure you make with intelligence and insight. Like Marilyn, I will most likely never watch this film again. I don’t believe I dislike it as much as Marilyn does but I am on board with each criticism she makes, especially the shower scene. I found that manipulation so wrongheaded I couldn’t and still can’t believe it actually made it to the filming stage without someone saying, “Wait a minute. Are we actually going to do a bait and switch suspense scene with the showers at Auschwitz? Instead of Zyklon B it’s water? We’re really going to do that?”
    I don’t mind a child symbolizing anything in any movie but the red coat in the black and white surroundings made the point so obvious and more importantly, so CINEMATICALLY obvious, that all I could think about was the technique and nothing else.
    Probably the one area where I don’t fully agree is on Feines character. Up to that point in my moviegoing life I had seen nothing but the banality of the Nazi death machine, from Diary of Anne Frank to Holocaust to Playing for Time and I thought it was important to also show people that the Nazis encouraged, hired and promoted through the ranks outright psychopaths. That hadn’t been dealt with before.
    Another criticism a friend of mine brought up once dealt with Amon Goeth taking target practice from his window after showing him forgive people based on Schindler’s suggestion. My friend was aghast at this scene because, as he said, Spielberg understands the language of cinema as well as anyone and should have known this type of construction would be offensive. The set-up being that we see Amon being told to forgive people to show his strength. He does this, briefly. Then we see him take out his gun and start shooting Jews again. From his vantage point, not theirs! That set-up, followed by the vantage point from Amon’s perch, clearly screamed out for laughs. I felt the same way when watching it. The scene says, “Ha, ha, look. Amon is back to his old ways again! Ha, ha, will he never learn?”
    I think that criticism as well as Marilyn’s go to the same point: Spielberg was using the same cinematic tricks that work extremely well in a Jaws, Close Encounters, or Minority Report but placing them in a story context where there very employment becomes offensive. Basically, he didn’t change his game when going up against a completely different opponent. He treated the Holocaust exactly as he treated a child in California coming upon an extra-terrestrial.
    Geez, I could have made a blog-post about this. Maybe I will.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/07/2009 to 10:26 am

    Rod, I did not know you disagreed about Schindler’s List. Certainly, it would be interesting to see a fan of the film write about it.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    27th/07/2009 to 11:15 am

    Greg & Marilyn, I’m with you about Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s instincts for entertainment really sabotage him when he tries to make a “serious” film — which is another of his problems, of course, the fact that he goes out of his way to do “serious” work rather than just making whatever he wants to make. One gets the sense with him that despite being one of the biggest, most famous directors around, he’s still slightly desperate for approval, desperate to be taken as seriously as his friend Kubrick. And yet his best work tends to be his unpretentious action movies and lighter fare. He should embrace that: Minority Report is great, just fleet-footed and exciting and even funny at times, while stuff like Jurassic Park and Jaws have held up well as sheer thriller action pieces.
    And then there’s War of the Worlds, a kind of sci-fi cousin to Schindler’s List, where he can’t just make a great sci-fi action movie, no, he has to co-opt the memories of 9/11 to really jerk the tears out of people. There’s something that just put a bad taste in my mouth when the sequences of alien tripods attacking were shot to resemble the amateur footage from Ground Zero.
    As for Defiance, I thought it was puzzling that the filmmakers had this GREAT story, a very different perspective on WWII from what we usually see, and then they treated the whole thing like a generic action movie. Bell and Schreiber were as good as you say, Marilyn, but I just felt like the film never really went very far with any of the ideas it raised. At one point, they ripped off the Lifeboat scene where the Jews fall on a captured German, but the film just shrugs off the implications of this moment, so why include it? There are so many complicated questions implicit in the Bielskis’ adventures, and this film only glides along the surface waiting for the big action moments.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/07/2009 to 11:25 am

    Ed, I agree with you about Defiance. It is eminently generic as an action movie. Maybe Zwick couldn’t sell it as a Jewish story. I think there were some interesting and authentic Jewish touches, such as the beauty of the wedding and celebration. Even that one short, rueful line about the attack coming on Passover put me into this community of Jews. I’m also not saying intellectuals were not part of the group, but like most of the characters, they were used as types. There were so few relatable people. As for the attack on the German soldier, the point Zwick seemed to be making was that Tuvia was ok with it. It was supposed to show him as a man, not the messenger from God he is called later in the film. But, Craig was so one-note throughout the film that it was hard to even take that lesson.

  • fox spoke:
    28th/07/2009 to 9:53 am

    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.
    I’m certainly no quick authority on Jewish-ness in American films, but my gut tells me that you’re right. Though there is a lot of Jewish-ness to someone like Woody Allen, obviously, I think he wastes a lot of it on worn out humor. And humor is fine, it’s great, I just think Woody has hit a wall with it in relation to his heritage.
    Although he is just as much a gay director as a Jewish director, I’ve enjoyed the movies of Eytan Fox (especially The Bubble), though, of course, he’s making movies outside of America.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/07/2009 to 10:07 am

    Woody Allen has done little but bring Borscht Belt comedy to the big screen, just as Mel Brooks and others of that ilk and generation have. There’s more to the Jewish story in America than what we’ve seen.

  • Rick spoke:
    28th/07/2009 to 11:06 am

    Interesting criticisms, Greg and Marilyn … they seem to revolve around a shared consensus that the Holocaust was a Holy Event, holy used in its original sense of “set apart, special.” Would folks complain about wringing emotion out of last week’s serial murder, or the latest kidnapping? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t make national headlines.
    Ed’s complaint about Spielberg using 9/11 imagery is out of the same font: 9/11 is “holy” in the same sense, even though they were nowhere near on the same scale. Personally, I found the most obvious use of 9/11 imagery in “War of the Worlds” in the “snow” debris falling on our heroes’ heads … the hand-held camera not so much. What? Did “Blair Witch Project,” exploit 9/11 too? Should “Cloverfield” have not used the amateur hand-held conceit because it was exploitative? Events get into the national zeitgeist, the communal memory, and art reflects that sensibility …
    I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment that Spielberg shouldn’t make an entertaining film out of an event like the Holocaust, can films not be both serious treatments and entertaining to boot? And as for not using cinematic tricks … short of placing a camera in the field, not moving it and having the cast act out the scene in front of it, how do you get around it? I guess it’s the old Realism vs Expressionist argument in a different guise
    (For the record, I didn’t think “Ha, ha, look. Amon is back to his old ways again! Ha, ha, will he never learn?” at the target practice scene. I was appropriately appalled.)
    But I do agree wholeheartedly that “Schindler’s List” is an exercise in making Gentiles feel better about themselves, no different from the stories of heroic whites in abolitionist or civil rights times … as a matter of fact, didn’t Spielberg make one of those? Didn’t he make “Amistad?”
    And, Marilyn, perhaps you are right: perhaps the world doesn’t need another Holocaust film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/07/2009 to 11:17 am

    Rick – We are talking about the bounds of taste. Of course, there can be films about the Holocaust (though why we need so many to the exclusion of every other thought about Jews, I don’t know). But what separates a good Holocaust film and a bad one is for me AT LEAST a matter of taste. Manipulating a true event of this magnitude for entertainment is a tricky affair, and Spielberg never knows when to turn off the pathos machine. He robbed the victims of their dignity, and I don’t like that in an “average” serial killer movie either. Human life should be respected. When I read the news story at the time of the kids laughing at the naked women in the showers, I thought, was it really their fault. It was an undignified, false moment, and they knew it at some level. Spielberg’s film was a failure freak show masquerading as noble.

  • Rick spoke:
    28th/07/2009 to 11:29 am

    Spielberg’s film was a failure freak show masquerading as noble.
    I’ll buy that.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/07/2009 to 11:51 am

    Really? I’m surprised. You sounded like you were on its side.

  • Rick spoke:
    28th/07/2009 to 12:10 pm

    No, not particularly. I just wanted to nuance some of your — and Ed’s and Greg’s — arguments. Spielberg goes over the top — early and often — in wringing emotion out of a situation. And his desire to pander to his audiences’ need to feel good can produce offensive results; as I said, I think you’re right on with your criticism of him assuaging Gentile guilt. I’ve only seen “Schindler’s List” once before, and have little desire to see it again.
    Actually, I agree with Ed that Spielberg’s action films are among the best, but that his “serious films” are seriously flawed.

  • Yann spoke:
    29th/07/2009 to 7:49 am

    Hi Ferdy, I love your blog and I am not trying to stir up a fight or anything, but I simply have to comment on your views regarding “Schindler’s List” and specifically your statement that the film:
    “milked it for cheap emotion that helped Gentiles in the audience feel good about themselves.”
    and was
    “pandering to a Gentile population whose parents and grandparents looked the other way while Jews were being slaughtered and denied safe haven in America.”
    I think you’re badly mistaken both as regards the film itself and your dichotomy between Jews and “Gentiles”.
    If providing such comfort was really Spielberg’s intention, which I think is highly doubtful in the first place, then he seemed to have failed miserably: all of the “Gentiles” I know, including some children and grandchildren of perpetrators and fellow-travellers, were positively devastated and depressed after having seen “Schindler’s List”.
    The fact that Schindler was able to save some thousand Jews did not make these people feel better about themselves at all, but on the contrary highlighted what a drop in the ocean his efforts were. Anybody who knows anything about the Nazi terror will view this story against the background of the unbelievable death and destruction that occurred and it would be totally ignorant to “feel better” about it, because somebody managed to save a few victims.
    I find it offensive to assume that “Gentiles” would be longing for such cheap relief and would be dumb or ignorant enough to so easily forget about the larger context. I’m afraid your statement becomes even more offensive, when we consider the fact that, depending on how you want to count it, up to 18 million victims of the Nazi terror were “Gentiles”. And since we are talking about the descendants of those involved, I have a hard time understanding how you come to think that there is a clear dividing line between those whose ancestors were victims, fellow-travellers and perpetrators.
    As far as the aesthetical and ethical merit of “Schindler’s List” is concerned, one can certainly criticize Spielberg’s approach, but again, accusing him of “robbing the victims of their dignity” seems to be way off base to me. Maybe the only sound way of dealing with the death and destruction brought about by the Nazi terror is a 10-hour screening of “Shoa” – but then how many people have seen it as opposed to “Schindler’s List”?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/07/2009 to 8:34 am

    Yann – Thank you for your considered comments, and I apologize if my remarks proved insensitive to your very legitimate concerns. We do forget the many Nazi victims – in the camps and on the battlefields – who weren’t Jews, probably because of this heightened emphasis on the Jewish Holocaust. Those victims deserve as much consideration and honor. I would recommend Bent as an excellent example of the resistance of homosexuals to the Nazis.
    As for whether all Gentiles want that relief, of course, the answer is “no.” But many do, and I’ve met them. Read as much Holocaust denial literature as I have, and you’ll see that there are plenty of people who don’t share a sense of responsibility for humanity and, indeed, still hate Jews. Live in a largely Catholic town, as I do, and see the level of ignorance about Jews. Seeing Schindler’s List is not likely to win Jews many fans – the pain is too great – unless Gentiles in the audience can identify with a good guy. The same device was used in Philadelphia, with Denzel Washington standing in for the straight community. It’s a standard cinematic device.
    I know how devastating this film was to non-Jews; I went under protest to see it with my ex-husband, a Catholic. He was extremely jarred, which I admit, made me kind of angry because I was wondering what he was expecting? Didn’t he know? I can get pretty angry about such ignorance, though I realize not everyone was raised in the spotlight of the Holocaust. If Schindler’s List raised consciousness on this issue among a new generation (or even the old one), then I guess Mr. Spielberg did good. If he felt the only way to raise people out of their torpor was to poke them hard emotionally, then maybe he’s right, and I’m wrong.
    I wonder, however, if his work prompted people not already inclined to help current victims of atrocities. It’s not enough to feel bad about the past; it must translate to action, or the film becomes a kind of sadomasochistic exercise. (Not that film has to mobilize people, but it seems a logical hope.) I guess I’ll never know for sure unless someone comes forward to say it changed their life.
    As for the question of dignity, I’m afraid I have to stick to my guns on this one. It’s a sore point with me, this continued Supreme Victims label. Again, what is the point of putting a bunch of naked women in a shower and then actually showering them? That’s not what happened. It’s like what Spielberg wished would happen, but it falsifies their story and robs them of their real fates – while naked, no less. I did think that was undignified.

  • Greg F spoke:
    29th/07/2009 to 9:31 am

    (For the record, I didn’t think “Ha, ha, look. Amon is back to his old ways again! Ha, ha, will he never learn?” at the target practice scene. I was appropriately appalled.)
    Rick, there are different stories for this according to different people. As for my friend, and me, we both experienced the same thing. In the theater, when the camera cuts to Goeth taking aim, making it clear he has clearly abandoned the forgiveness strategy, my friend in his theatrical experience and me in mine heard… laughter. Yes, there were chuckles. Those chuckles wouldn’t come from you or me or anyone we know, probably, but they came because that is how the scene is set up.
    Let me make this more clear: I don’t believe for a second Spielberg wanted it to be funny.
    I am saying he incompetently set it up that way because he is so well-versed in cinematic technique and so emotionally deficient in… EVERYTHING (which is why I am consistently disappointed by his dramatic work while others are wowed) that he mindlessly gave a comedic context to an appalling scene. He did so because emotionally he is a child and didn’t understand why it was the wrong technique to use. That’s why SCHINDLER’S LIST for me is filled with wrongheaded moves (the shower scene, the girl in red, the scene I just discussed) because Spielberg doesn’t understand he’s using the wrong techniques for the individual scenes.

  • Yann spoke:
    29th/07/2009 to 12:26 pm

    Marilyn – I’m glad you didn’t take this the wrong way and that we can have a civil discussion. It seems our different takes on the film are strongly influenced by the attitudes we see towards Jews in our respective societies. I am quite surprised that the climate of latent anti-semitism and ignorance you describe exists to such an extent in the US. Coming from Europe, I certainly won’t deny that such attitudes exist here, but they are mostly at the very margins of society and being anti-semitic or denying the Holocaust would lead to immediate exclusion at least from my social circles. Also, you learn so much in school and on TV about the Nazis, that ignorance about these matters is considered more or less inexcusable, and those who claim ignorance or actively go against the mainstream historical consensus have to make a deliberate decision to relegate themselves to the radical fringes. So I would say that “Schindler’s List” represented pretty much a mainstream view of the matter and that the facts presented surprised very few people, but rather that it was the emotional impact a Spielberg film can have on the masses which brought out latent emotions connected with this period such as shame and pity.
    I agree with your point regarding the need for a hero people can identify with and the inability of most mainstream films to consistently stick with the perspective of the victims – and sometimes this drives me nuts as well. Most Vietnam and more recently Iraq war movies, for instance, even those highly critical of the war, stick to a US perspective and I wish just once in a while at least film-makers would dare to tell the story from the point of view of a Vietnamese peasant or a normal Iarqi family caught up in the chaos and destruction of war. But, as you yourself pointed out, this is a standard Hollywood device (thanks for the tip on “Bent”, incidentally I was thinking of “Philadelphia” as well, when I wrote the previous post), and I find it a bit unfair to single out Spielberg here.
    One last point regarding the shower scene: I am not quite sure when or where I read about this, but I think it was common practice in the camps to have the women shower first with water, so that when they finally would be gassed, after having been used for cheap labour, there would be no outcry and panic. But I might be mistaken.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/07/2009 to 1:37 pm

    Yann, The level of ignorance in this country about history is appalling, particularly when it comes to histories outside of the United States. Even there, history is written by the victors. Many schools teach little about the history of our own Holocaust toward Native Americans these days. We’re in a dark time with the advent of teaching to the tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, which emphasize English and math.
    As for anti-Semitism, I’d hardly call it latent. I refer you to this article for a look at what is part of mainstream America: http://www.weaselzippers.net/blog/2009/07/farrakhan-blames-michael-jacksons-death-on-zionist-conspiracy.html
    As for the shower scene, I can’t say that you’re not right, but in this movie, it’s clear that these women were not being showered only to lull them for later extermination. They were meant to be saved, which makes the scene manipulative of what audiences know about the death camp methods.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    29th/07/2009 to 1:37 pm

    Sorry Marilyn, but I have a problem with A Price above Rubies, probably because the stars were as Jewish as those in Marjorie Morningstar. How about Sidney Lumet’s Bye, Bye, Braverman? How much braver Hollywood was in the late Sixties.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/07/2009 to 1:58 pm

    The cast of Rubies is a mix of Jews and non-Jews, but I wouldn’t want to cast a film strictly along religious lines anyway. I felt it rang true and compared favorably with an Israeli film, My Father, My Lord, that examined the Orthodox Jewish community. Besides, it’s the only contemporary English-language film I could think of that actually cares about something other than the Holocaust.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    30th/07/2009 to 11:25 am

    I completely disagree with the general concensus here on SCHINDLER’S LIST, which by any barometer of measurement is one of the greatest films of the 1990’s. The emotional resonance of the film is deep and lasting, and re-viewings of the film have strenghthened my original sentiments. The issues brought to the table here, while valid and thoughtful, seemed poised to defend a position that was instigated by a less-than-intense emotional reaction to the film. I do believe it’s wide-popularity, critics awards and general status as one of the greatest of Holaucaust films has not served it well over the long run, but in my view it has not compromised the film artistically in the slightest. As always I greatly respect the opinions of many here.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/07/2009 to 12:15 pm

    Sam – I respect your feelings about Schindler’s List, but I can tell you that my assessment is not based on less-than-intense feelings in reaction to the film. If anything, I would say it is based on more-than-intense feelings, feelings that I felt manipulated into. Awards have nothing to do with my feelings about this, as I thought The Pianist, which also won Oscars and plaudits, was an exemplar of a Holocaust film.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    30th/07/2009 to 1:19 pm

    Marilyn: I have cooled to THE PIANIST since its awards run, but while I can’t say you are wrong that there is some manipulatyion in SCHINDLER, I feel that on balance its hugely effective. I almost feel that Spielberg earned his few missteps in that sense. But again, we all have different criteria in coming to our conclusions. I won’t be placing it at the #1 position of the 90’s, for that I would think more in terms of Tarr’s SATANTANGO, Kiarostami’s TASTE OF CHERRY or THE WIND WILL CARRY US, Egoyan’s THE SWEET HEREAFTER, Kieslowski’s RED, DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE, or DEKALOGUE, Rivette’s LA BELLE NOISEUSE, Techine’s WILD REEDS or perhaps Nichols’s GATTACA or Yimou’s RAISE THE RED LANTERN, but you can see the company I place it in. Still, it’s just one opinion.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    10th/12/2010 to 12:01 pm

    The few comments that I will leave here won’t be over Defiance but just some responses to the things some of you have said here about Schindler’s List. I’m not planning to start a major debate here but I just want to leave some points here to follow everyone else’s so that anybody who reads Marilyn’s review here will find them later.

    -Greg claims that in the “I pardon you” scene, after Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) immediately goes back to shooting at the Jews from the balcony, we see the killings from his point of view. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Greg is confusing that scene with an earlier scene in the film in which we DO see the sniping of the prisoners from Goeth’s point of view–and this is long before he and Schindler have the “power” talk. After the “power” talk, however, when Goeth tries pardoning the Jews but immediately starts shooting them again, we see the angle not from Goeth’s point of view, but from the Jews down on the ground. There is a clear shot of Liesek, the boy being shot at by Goeth, nervously trying to walk away from Goeth’s gunshots. And then there is a clear shot of Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) walking quietly past Liesek’s dead body. All of this is seen from their points of view, not Goeth’s.

    -Marilyn has said several times in this thread that the shower scene wouldn’t have happened this way. But, Marilyn, it DID happen that way–to those particular women, I mean. In the real incident, when Schindler’s women were accidentally shipped off to Auschwitz, they were stranded at that camp for three weeks (and not just a few days, as implied in the film). This, of course, means that during their stay at the camp, Schindler’s women took SEVERAL showers, and not just one. Couldn’t they have only feared the worst every time they went in? True, Spielberg doesn’t show Jews being gassed. But that doesn’t mean there is no indication of gas chambers in the film: when the women walk out of the showers, Spielberg pans over to a long line of OTHER Jews descending into barracks. Up above the barracks, a chimney is blowing out funnels of smoke. And that says it all. Those Jews are being gassed.

    -The little girl in the red coat doesn’t represent “the generations of European Jewry that will never blossom and grow.” She represents the sheer obviousness of the Holocaust on the face of the planet at the time. I think the reason she’s in red is because red is such a provacative color–and how could the rest of the world not recognize an ugly, provocative piece of genocide that was as obvious as a little girl in a red coat? She makes two appearances in the film, both of which serve as a sort of wake-up call to Schindler: when she first appears in the ghettos, it’s an omen to Schindler that his Jews will be sent to the concentration camp. When she sppears much later, dead, in a pile of corpses, it’s a WARNING to Schindler that if he doesn’t do something quick, his Jews will be sent to the death camps and all hope will be lost.

    -The purpose of the “I could have done more” speech is to remind the audience of the fact that while Schindler saved some, he inadvertently condemned others to die. I’d be very surprised if I ever met anyone who felt good after hearing the speech when they’re supposed to get the exact opposite reaction from it. The scene is there to remind audiences that the movie is not only about the Jews who lived. Many more perished. Yes, its basic narrative is focused on those who survived, but isn’t The Pianist just as much of a film about survival? For that matter, Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone is the only great Holocaust movie I can think of that is situated solely on the ones who died.

    All of the above is going to be covered in a joint piece Ryan Kelly and I are writing in discussion of this film–to be included in our Spielberg blogathon in the next two weeks or so.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/12/2010 to 9:22 am

    Adam – I remember the shooting scene as you describe it, so thanks for the clarification. As for your commentary are the film, I must say those are persuasive comments, though I still think from a cinematic POV, the shower scene is one of those “gotcha” moments Spielberg likes so much, truthful or not. I look forward to reading the piece in its entirety.

  • Rod spoke:
    11th/12/2010 to 9:42 am

    I’d just like to say that Defiance sucks.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    12th/12/2010 to 2:05 am

    See, I didn’t even SEE Defiance. Edward Zwick is a hack–and I say that as somebody who enjoys The Last Samurai as a guilty pleasure.

    Marilyn, thanks for the courteous reply. Ryan and I hope you enjoy our joint piece; we’ll make sure to cover all of the questionable things about the film so that we can provide answers to everyone’s quibbles over it (and Ryan has much of the same problems with the film as you do, so your own arguments will be in good company, I can assure you).

    Also, my apologies for the poor way I formatted that post above… I didn’t mean to put those two paragraphs in Italics. Screw WordPress’s HTML system!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/12/2010 to 8:23 am

    I don’t think Defiance sucks. I think it is just so generic that it could have been about anyone.

  • Rod spoke:
    12th/12/2010 to 9:26 am

    That’s pretty accurate. But it therefore counted as a major disappointment – a bunch of Hollywood pretty people cavorting around in a standardized action movie based on an important story.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/12/2010 to 10:07 am

    Yes, by that standard, it sucks. Took a great story and flattened it like a pancake.

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