Movie review: 'Defiance' shows another side of Holocaust

Thursday, January 22, 2009
In this image released by Paramount Vantage, Jamie Bell portrays Assael Bielski, left, and Daniel Craig portrays Tuvia Bielski in a scene from the film, "Defiance." (AP Photo/Paramount Vantage, Karen Ballard) ** NO SALES **

Liev Schreiber, who plays Zus Bielski, said he was ashamed he hadn't heard about the Bielski brothers before he was asked to act in "Defiance." After seeing the film, I feel the same way about my ignorance. And I'm sure as the film has its run, many tearing and shamed eyes will fill the theaters. "Defiance" is heartbreaking, thrilling and life affirming all at the same time.

We've seen "Schindler's List," the "Hiding Place," a hundred films about the Holocaust where good Christians and atheists saved the poor Jews, but never have we seen a story (or at least I haven't) where Jews take their lives into their own hands like this. Jews saving Jews. Jews fighting back. Jews attacking the Germans.

And maybe this is too simply put, but "Defiance" is better than the vast majority of World War II films I have ever seen. And the reason is seemingly too simple: The storyline is that the fighters and survivors are of the hunted. This subject is something not often broached in the war film; they fought to survive not because of their policies or their geography, but because they existed. It's the story of the preyed upon. And the story is remarkable.

In the summer of 1941, the Nazis moved into Belarus. Thousands of Jews were rounded up and either sent to the ghetto or killed outright. One family, the Bielskis, were killed save for four brothers, who escaped into the woods. As they struggled each day to survive, more and more displaced Jews found their way into the woods. The Bielskis, unable to turn them back, or to even say no, became their protectors. The brothers would raid the nearby villages for food, keep order, fight back raiding Germans and eventually became leaders.

At the end of their time in the woods, the group numbered more than 1,200 souls. From 1941 until 1944 they stayed secluded and protected by the Bielskis.

It's said — and certainly written about — that Jews were not a fighting people. And to go so willingly to the ghettos and camps said something about their nature — as if they were a different species of human. But it's certainly an ongoing subtext with modern Israel and modern history. (I might argue that in 1941 it was hard to believe anything like the Holocaust was imminent and that time would work out the issues, but that's for others much smarter than me to discuss.)

I bring up the issue because it's brought up in the film: The brothers struggle with the idea of caring for — being responsible for — all these disparate Jews when they know that absent the war most of them would have nothing to do with them. Many were "high" Jews who considered the Bielski types to be low-class. But of course now, without the brother's help, they were lost sheep. It's an interesting aspect of the story that's not explored and troublesome. In a way, it's again the story of the good gentile protecting the Jews, though this time it's the Bielskis.

It's said that one of the reasons the Bielskis didn't seek recognition or talk about their time in the woods is that the reality of the four years was too harsh. The violence they committed in order to survive left them damaged. People called them heroes until their deaths in the 1980s, but it seems the Bielskis wanted not much more than to live in peace.

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