Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Defiance Movie Review: A Tale of Jewish Vengeance

First published on American Madness on 11 January 2009.
Republished here unaltered.

Defiance, one of several Third Reich-themed films arriving in cinemas this awards season, is a marginally enthralling Hollywood entertainment. Director Edward Zwick has proven a capable hand over the years at making solidly entertaining action films (The Last Samurai; Glory) that also strive at a message of slightly greater importance. Written by Zwick and Clayton Frohman based on a book by Nechama Tec, it tells the true story of the Bielski partisans – a group of Jews led by the Bielski Brothers (Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron) who resisted the Nazi occupation of Poland and survived in the forest for 4 years until the war’s end.


At the start the middle brothers, Zus and Asael (Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell), return to their farm to find their parents slain and their youngest brother, Aron (newcomer George McKay), just a teenager, hiding in the cellar. They flee to the woods where they meet eldest brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig). After briefly mourning the loss of their parents, they continue into the woods, eventually taking on a small group of Jewish runaways, which eventually becomes more, and then still more as they build camp to survive the harsh winter. Throughout the film they will have to flee and build new camps as their position is discovered by the Nazi army.

The acting, particularly that of Schreiber and Bell, is generally very good. Schreiber plays Zus as a stoic man bent on revenge. But he allows Zus a private moment of emotional breakdown when he learns of the murder of his wife and child. Bell is perhaps the luckiest actor in the film, having been given the most interestingly drawn character. A young man, really not much more than a boy, at the outset, Asael transforms from a scared youth barely able to go on after the death of his father to a natural born leader who can take command of the party when Tuvia is struck indecisive at a key decision-making moment. We learn in the closing titles that Asael went on to join the Soviet Red Army.

It’s worth pointing out, I think, that Aron is given only a cursory glance by the direction and editing. In fact, although the fates of the three elder brothers are made known by the closing titles, no mention at all is made of the youngest. Could this be the direct result of his arrest, along with his wife, in Florida in late 2007 for a kidnapping and theft scam?

One pet-peeve of mine with regard to cinema is the use of accents when the actors are speaking English in place of characters who would otherwise be speaking a foreign language. In this particular example we have a set of characters who would have spoken Polish to one another. Because the film is from Hollywood, starring English speaking actors, accented English substitutes for Polish (the film also contains a fair amount of Russian subtitled in English). When you speak to your friends do you ever note your own accent? Neither would Polish Jews speaking to one another. I recognize that this practice is not going to disappear and possibly for many people it makes sense, but I find the use of phony accents donned by the actors to be a distraction rather than an aid. The distraction in this film is augmented by the filmmakers’ taking it a step further by having the characters speak grammatically incorrect English! They often leave out the article before nouns - a mistake typical of native Polish speakers speaking English as a second language.

Although Defiance is generally well-made, reasonably well-written and occasionally interesting, it is disappointingly unambitious. It touches the surface of the strife between Tuvia and Zus, one of whom wants to exact revenge on the Nazi soldiers and Polish collaborators, the other who refuses to “become like them” and would prefer to save one Jew than kill ten Nazis. The interesting twist is that the pacifist is the one who exacts cold-blooded revenge by assassinating the man responsible for his parents’ murders. But where is the exploration of these themes? The screenwriters don’t have the courage to delve into the troubling depths of thinking that would seek to answer such difficult questions.

The film climaxes with a battlefield scenario between a small Nazi infantry regiment supported by a tank and the Bielski partisans. Seemingly without hope, another group of partisans heroically rushes in to save the day. I suppose they were well-versed in Hollywood convention and knew exactly when to arrive. This scene sums up that perhaps most troubling of all is the realization that the more time that passes since the Holocaust, the more common it is to present its stories as entertainment. There’s a responsibility we have as humanity not only never to forget what happened but also never to cheapen it by turning it into an action picture.

I think it fitting to close with a quotation I recently read from historian Raul Hilberg: “[W]hen relatively isolated or episodic acts of resistance are represented as typical, a basic characteristic of the German measures is obscured ... the drastic actuality of a relentless killing of men, women and children is mentally transformed into a more familiar picture of a struggle — however unequal — between combatants.”

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