Whether it be in the US, Europe, or Israel, filmmakers are demonstrating a renewed interest in World War II, specifically the Jewish Holocaust. Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, starring Academy Award winner Kate Winslet, Adam Resurrected directed by Paul Schrader, Boaz Yakin’s Death in Love, Amos Gitai’s Later, starring Jeanne Moreau ,and Uri Barabash’s Spring 1941 are perhaps the best examples. The question is why? What is spurring a renewal of cinematographic interest in the Shoah at this point in time?
This question gains particular urgency in the light of two of the bigger productions in this wave of Holocaust-focused filmmaking: Brian Singer’s Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise, and Edward Zwick’s Defiance. The latter film in particular raises some disturbing questions about Hollywood’s fascination with the Nazi genocide. Zwick’s adaptation of Nechama Tec’s book of the same name, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, follows the four Bielski brothers, played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and George MacKay, who survive the liquidation of the Jewish population in their hometown, in the eastern regions of Nazi-occupied Poland, and escape to the surrounding forests.
There, an ever-growing number of Jewish refugees join them, drawn by the charisma of the brothers, their familiarity with the area and their resourcefulness. The group survives by raiding local farms, and through aid provided them by organized Soviet partisan battalions in the vicinity. The film, however, focuses on the rivalry between the two older brothers, Tuvia and Zus: whereas Tuvia sees his mission in saving as many Jews as possible, leading them to the forests and providing for them, Zus insists that they cannot afford to take care of the old, the sick and the very young, and that they should invest all of their resources in fighting the Germans. The rivalry leads to a split between the brothers. Tuvia remains with the larger group of refugees, while Zus and a number of men join up with the Soviet partisans and participate in their operations.
The uneasiness Defiance raises lies not in its faithfulness to historical facts. Zwick’s film is as faithful or, rather, unfaithful to the facts as any other Hollywood product. Nor does it lie in the banal dialogues the cast is made to repeat. Indeed, at times it seems as though the director has ransacked the history of Holocaust cinema in search of the most clichéd possible lines his characters could utter. Nor, once more, does this uneasiness lie in the decision to have the actors who play Jews, (most of them British), speak their lines in a heavy, presumably Polish-sounding accent. The dialogue of the non-Jews in Defiance, it should be noted, is in either Russian or German. One wonders why-if the film insists on authenticity- Zwick didn’t let the Jewish characters speak in Yiddish or Polish. Since the director chose English as the language of his protagonists, why not the native English already spoken by the film’s actors? Nor, finally, does it lie in the heavy-handed direction that turns every scene into a climax so utterly predictable that it undermines the intended impact of the movie.
Defiance does, however, raise a few fascinating questions, most of all about the tense relationship between all involved: between the local Polish and Russian populations and their once Jewish neighbors; between the Soviet partisans and the Jewish refugees. Most importantly, it raises questions about the friction amongst Jews themselves. Several times Zwick alludes to antagonism between the Bielski brothers, who hailed from a less fortunate background, and some of their more bourgeois, intellectual followers. More importantly, Defiance alludes to the violence attributed to the Jewish resistance itself. Indeed, allegations have surfaced about incidents of rape, and even murder amongst the legendary Bielski partisans. Nevertheless, Edward Zwick brushes aside all of these crucial questions to focus on Defiance’s core theme: deliverance.
Undeniably, the uneasiness Defiance raises lies in the very nature of the story it insists on telling about the Holocaust. Explicitly presenting itself as a contemporary adaptation of the story of Exodus, (the parting of the Red Sea included), Defiance is a story of deliverance from slavery to freedom, and the rise of a worthy Moses-like leader in the figure of Tuvia, the oldest Bielski sibling, played by Daniel Craig. In Tuvia, Zwick finds the reluctant leader who is forced against his better judgment to take responsibility for an obstinate and stubborn flock, to overcome continuous challenges to his leadership-including by his own brother-and to lead his followers through the wilderness to the promised land of safety.
That Promised Land arrives when Zus rejoins his brothers at the end of Defiance. Accordingly, Tuvia leads the refugees, who were forced to flee their forest camp in the face of advancing German forces, across the marshes, only to come face to face with these forces. In a battle scene that seems all too reminiscent of Craig’s latest James Bond films, Zus and his men return to help the undermanned Bond, pardon, Tuvia, and together they handily defeat the enemy. As the four brothers, now united, lead their flock into the safety of the woods, Tuvia comments, to the sound of a rising music, “The Forest. It is beautiful isn’t it?” and Zus replies, “Yes, it is.” After more than two hours, the audience can now have its satisfaction, its feel good moment.
Herein lies Defiance’s problem. Considering what Holocaust survivors as well as historians of the Shoah have been telling us- with greater urgency in recent years- for those who experienced it, there is no redemption, no Promised Land, no real resolution. In fact, what is so disturbing about accounts of survivors is precisely the realization that they have never left the ghettos, the hiding places, the camps, the woods. They are still there, unable to bring themselves into their new lives, their new places of residence, their freedom. Furthermore, scholars now tell us that not only the children of these survivors are impacted by the traumas their parents experienced during the war, but so are the grandchilden. Indeed, some have argued that our society as a whole, Israeli society in particular, still operates under the impact of this trauma. In other words, we cannot leave the Holocaust behind us. We cannot enter any metaphorical ‘forest,’ as Zwick would have us, and recognize how beautiful it is.
The uneasiness films like Defiance raise lies not only in their refusal to take the plight of survivors seriously. Rather, it also lies in a refusal to take our own culture seriously. As long as we believe that we can learn something positive from the Holocaust, about moral values, brotherly love, courage, what have you, we will fail to understand the truly horrible essence of the Nazi genocide, under whose sign we still operate. What we call “moral values,” “brotherly love,” and “courage” took on completely different meanings during that time. None of this truly mattered in determining who would survive and who would not. In molding the Shoah into a story of deliverance, Edward Zwick does not just turn the Holocaust into a piece of entertainment but, in a skewed way, justifies the Holocaust (like other wars), for bringing out the best in mankind.
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