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The Unheralded Heroes of the Holocaust

Also see Micah Sachs' interview with the director of Defiance, Edward Zwick.

Is there any purer pleasure in war film than watching Nazis get shot?

Devoted to the thematic orthodoxy that "war is hell," modern war films offer few guiltless pleasures. What joys there are are usually small: comrades from different social strata bonding during a break from battle, soldiers finding some foodstuff that would barely qualify as a delicacy in peacetime, the hero returning from the front with his arms and legs intact.

Bielski brothers
Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski and Liev Schreiber as Zus Bielski star in Defiance. Photo: Karen Ballard. 

But the death of Nazis supplies a joy far beyond these morsels of normality. Seeing good stomp evil is of course satisfying. But for the Jewish viewer especially, watching a Nazi die on screen offers a taste of the revenge that history never let us have.

The most exhilarating--and memorable--moments of Defiance come from our ready acquiescence to the Nazi-killing fantasy. These moments are all the more invigorating because they're (mostly) true.

Loosely based on a nonfiction book by Nechama Tec, Defiance tells the story of the Bielski brothers, a quartet of Jewish siblings who saved more than a thousand Jews from the ghettoes and concentration camps of Belarus. Like many of director Edward Zwick's (Glory, Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai) protagonists, they are unlikely heroes. They come from a poor village family. They were in and out of trouble as kids. But what made them outsiders during peace makes them ideal rebels during war: they are naturally distrustful of authority, and they know how to survive in the forest.

Zwick's and Clayton Frohman's script traces the Bielskis' evolution from refugees to avengers to saviors. After finding their parents murdered by collaborationist police, Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Alex Bielski (Jamie Bell) flee with their child brother to the woods. They are soon joined by elder brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig), who has left his wife and child behind in Minsk.

When the youngest brother stumbles upon a dazed group of survivors, the Bielskis become reluctant caretakers. At this point, saving other Jews is only a distraction from their main goal: getting vengeance for their parents' death. In a very effective montage, the Bielskis terrorize surrounding villages, making it known that collaborators will pay with their lives.

But as the number of refugees swell, Tuvia has a change of heart. "Our revenge is to live," he tells his followers. But Zus, who is portrayed as the gang's toughest--and most cynical--soldier, is disdainful of the helpless middle-class Jews that keep streaming into their camp. "These are the Jews who would lock up their daughters from us," he tells Tuvia. As their camp grows into something resembling a ramshackle town--replete with school and blacksmith--Zus leaves to join a band of Russian partisans whose sole purpose is to fight the Germans.

Early on, the film illustrates the darker side of the Bielskis' project. Tuvia kills a collaborator despite his cries for mercy; Zus steals the coat of a milkman who has already lost most of his milk to the Germans; a threatening young man in the Bielski camp insinuates to a beautiful newcomer that she should be his "forest wife." But what starts as a tough-minded portrait of the compromises necessary to save lives morphs into a much more conventional, and often clichéd, tale of Hollywood heroism.

Tuvia becomes the stereotypical modern hero, questioned during times of struggle, but always proven right, and always motivated by selflessness. His heroism, while inspiring, isn't relatable. Liev Schreiber gives the more interesting, and charismatic, performance of the two leads. Typically cast as a sensitive modern man, Schreiber is a revelation as an uneducated country boy who thinks with his fists. Somehow he seems about a foot taller than normal.

As we watch the two brothers' parallel lives among partisans of peace and partisans of war, it becomes clear they are meant to serve as opposing poles in the classic ethical debate: which is more important, saving civilians or killing bad guys?

The problem is, the film's head says save civilians, while its heart says kill bad guys. As interesting as it is to watch a new society hatch from nothing in the Belarussian forest, it's downright transfixing to see a Nazi soldier get stabbed in the heart. This may be the curse of Schindler's List. We've seen Jews get saved before (many times actually), but we haven't seen Jews get back at the Nazis. Defiance is supposed to be a sober Holocaust tale, but it's at its best when it's an action movie.

There may also be a bit of male bloodlust at work. While I couldn't get enough dead Nazis, the three women I saw the film with were uneasy with the brutality the Bielskis inflict on the Germans. While I found almost all the romantic scenes to be hogwash, I suspect my friends found them to be humanizing. But that still doesn't excuse Zwick's unfortunate tendency to force-feed the audience their intellectual broccoli.

In the prelude to the film's culminating battle scene, the fleeing Bielski partisans come to a dead end in the forest. Ahead of them is a seemingly unpassable swamp. Yet they forge ahead, not knowing where they'll end up, in a nice allusion to the Biblical Exodus. But Zwick and Frohman can't leave well enough alone. "God will not part these waters," says Asael, making explicit what was already obvious.

The final battle encapsulates all that is right and wrong with this film. When Zus emerges from the forest, without armor, machine gun in hand, and mows down members of a German tank unit, shoots the gunner and drops a grenade in the turret, it's as energizing as a skydive. But what follows--I won't reveal what--is so trite, formulaic and plainly silly that I felt like my parachute didn't open. A true story this amazing doesn't need a Hollywood ending. It already had one.

Micah Sachs

Micah Sachs is the former managing editor of InterfaithFamily.

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