Mar 9, 2010

On DVD: Defiance

I never thought I would say this, but I actually liked Defiance, the Ed Zwick film about the Bielski brothers from Bielorussia, who hid in the forest during WWII and saved themselves and 1200 Jews from slaughter. They also killed some Nazis and Russian collaborators, which is deeply satisfying to this viewer. To the movie's credit, it does not quite celebrate the Jewish acts of revenge. There are a couple of harrowing scenes in which actual revenge does not seem as easy, palatable or satisfying to those who commit it. One scene depicts that murder, even if justified by revenge, is very hard for an individual. It requires a leap into feral territory, something we never see in most depictions of murder on the screen. In the other scene, the forest Jews capture a German soldier and Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) allows mob mentality to take over. The scene is deeply understandable, though absolutely shocking. The camera focuses on Bielski's face as he allows a lynching in what has otherwise been a successful haven of civilization in the midst of hell. I think this scene should be taught in schools everywhere. Revenge is the opposite of civilization, yet it is necessary. Justice is the civilized form of revenge. Which is why Adolf Eichmann and the Nazis at Nuremberg were given trials (whereas totalitarian murderers like the Nazis, Stalin, Mao etc, give mock trials or no trials at all). And which is why, Liz Cheney, unspeakable spawn of Satan, we need to temper our revenge with justice. Otherwise we revert to beasts. We become like our tormentors.
Defiance is exactly the opposite of the other movie about Jews fighting Nazis, Inglorious Basterds, a cinematic revenge fantasy, puerile and unconcerned with moral implications, which, to be fair, are not its intention. Tarantino's movie is not about history, but about WWII movies. It lives in an airtight compartment of movie imagination (which is why it has the most charming Nazi ever and Hitler and his friends all die in a movie theater). As much as I enjoyed some of its meager panache, in the end Inglorious Basterds left me very discomfited. In reality, nobody got to Hitler in time to prevent all that murder, so what exactly are we celebrating?
I find Defiance much more satisfying. To know that 1200 people were saved, which today have resulted in about 19,000 Jews roaming the Earth, that's a much better feeling.
I expected maudlin and overwrought from Defiance, and some of it is, but it is also extremely powerful and more complicated than the usual Hollywood fare.  It is a mature and complex Hollywood movie and the best thing Ed Zwick has ever done. Extraordinary cinematography from Eduardo Serra, by the way.
At its core, Defiance has two excellent, credible, deeply dignified performances by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as the Bielski brothers. They speak English with thick Russian accents and they speak Russian in a way that to my untrained ears sounds pretty authentic. Both of them are even sexier in Russian, if you can believe it.
I am happy to personally welcome Mr. Craig as a honorary Jew (he was also a hot Mossad agent in Munich). He is not only extremely attractive, he is also a damn fine actor, a totally credible leader. He and Schreiber, also a very good actor, who plays his more reckless brother Zus, have wonderful, believable chemistry together, a miraculous occurrence that seldom happens between actors in films today.
Some of the dialogue is a little theatrical (Craig on his horse giving a speech to his people like Henry IV at Agincourt) and I don't understand Zwick's predilection for putting cheesy music in violent battle scenes, but there is more good backbone to this movie than schmaltz, in sharp contrast to his movie about the diamond trade, Blood Diamonds.
Defiance reopened in me the old wound of the memory of the Jews that didn't fight. One could say those Jews fought tooth and nail to survive in the camps, but the shame of having been so gullible and acquiescent still hurts (then again, who could have believed anybody in the modern age could hatch such a massively bestial, inhuman plan?).
This movie made me think of revenge. What to make of my deep feelings of pleasure when I see a Nazi dying on the screen? What to make of the human need and endless capacity for revenge?  All we can do is temper it with as much fairness and justice as we are capable of.
From Wikipedia:
The Sage Hillel, ...when asked to sum up the entire Torah concisely, answered:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

Talmud, Shabbat 31a, the "Great Principle"

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