Defiance (2008) tells the story of the four Bielski Brothers, Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron, who gathered and led a 1200-member community of Jewish resistors in the forests of Belarus during the Holocaust, preserving their lives. The film was directed by Edward Zwick, and stars Daniel Craig and Liev Schriber. It opened to mixed reviews and some controversy: reviewers tended to credit Zwick with a high degree of historical accuracy, and some controversy.
Polish commentators argue that while the film acknowledges that the Bielskis allied their group with Soviet partisans in the area, it fails to reveal the significance of that alliance: this was not the regular Soviet Army, but an NKVD group (NKVD being the precursors to the KGB.) The Soviet Union had NKVD operatives in the area to murder Poles in preparation for a Soviet invasion.
While the film doesn’t engage with this particular controversy, it makes no bones about the fact that often the group had to operate in ethically questionable ways. The Bielski brothers managed to save over 1000 Jewish lives. Whether that outweighs their methods and choices is a question worth discussion.
As history, Defiance is a success; it tells the story without significantly changing it. However, as a drama it received mixed reviews.
Reviewer Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle points out that this is a problem of the “Holocaust genre” as it has developed in American film. According to LaSalle, successful “Holocaust drama” has good guys (Jews, or a Christian trying to save Jews) bad guys (Nazis or collaborators), and ultimately an upbeat ending in which the good guys survive to tell the tale. Given that we are talking about the Holocaust, the “upbeat ending” requirement is more than a little ridiculous.
The good guys of Defiance are the Bielskis, who steal and kill in the interest of preserving the group. At least one of them is more interested in revenge than survival. The way the film is cut, the main conflict in the film is not Jews-vs-Nazis or even Jews-vs-Death, but brother-vs-brother as Tuvia and Zus wrestle over the question of revenge versus community organizing. Given the backdrop of survival in the forest with Nazis circling behind every rock and tree, there is a feeling of disconnect through the film: why are these guys fighting? Don’t they realize who the real enemy is?
Still, Defiance is well worth watching because it is an accurate account of one of the cases in the Holocaust where Jews fought back and did so successfully. The fact that the filmmaker chose fidelity to history is really rather remarkable, given that, as LaSalle pointed out, were the film to fit the genre, the Bielskis would have been re-visioned to paint them as saints. They weren’t saints; they were human beings in an inhuman situation. Their choices, and our discussion of their choices, can make for genuine learning.
What choices did the Bielskis make in order to survive? What options did they refuse to take? Could you say that their choices were informed by Jewish values? Why or why not?
What other Holocaust films have you seen? Did they fit Mick LaSalle’s description of the genre? Given that many Americans get most of their Holocaust education from the movies, what consequences do you see for the “happy ending” requirement? What are the consequences of changing the details of stories so that the Jews make no ethically questionable choices, and appear “saintly”?