"The other thing about it is that we as a culture, Jewish culture
has devoted an extraordinary amount to the memorialization
of the lost. But in fact, in doing so, counter intuitively, has
tended to ignore the living and those who survived
and how they survived."
Director, Edward Zwick
Personal Aside; Forgive me but I am gently, happily and stoically enduring an overpowering surfeit of Nazi movies. It didn't hit me until I switched my phone off to watch Defiance... An Anne Frank drama had been running all last week on TV (a dramatic accompaniment to the DVD of Remembering Anne Frank). My latest review was The Stranger (Orson Welles as a Nazi on the run). Tom Cruise's much delayed 'Moral Nazis must kill Hitler' movie, Valkyrie, was trailed at the cinema as well as The Reader, a movie I am looking forward to seeing despite its ad campaign of 'Winslet as SS Nazi bitch screws over Voldemort – sorry, Ralph Fiennes'. In the post is a movie to review about an escape from a Polish extermination camp (I'm assuming with added Nazis) and all in all, it could be fair to say I'm almost Nazi'ed out. But no. As long as the work is good and it makes me care...
The one terrifying and defining event of the 20th century, one which showed just how vile human nature could pervert itself into, deluded by ideology (open to argument but I have six million, albeit silent souls on my side), was the mass extermination of the Jews in World War II. Their singular and collective experience is simply unimaginable. A war is a war and both sides fight, both sides choose to fight even if individuals' courage varies tremendously. The "Jewish Problem" had an inconceivable answer. If you were Jewish under Nazi control in the early 40s, you were statistically marked for certain death. The tiniest percentage survived. Let's take a modern human being living in what's oddly called 'the west' as a base line. No one knows how he or she would react, behave or act in the circumstances that these mortally unfortunate people found themselves. Why?
Because we are the molly-coddled of the 21st century. We do not know hunger, nor do we know desperation. We worry about how much petrol costs, how to get past the digital rights management of iTunes, how to justify the mid-buttock style of youth trouser wearage. In short, nothing threatens our essential being except happenstance and luck. I know it's hard but try to imagine hunger... Real hunger. I can't. Try to imagine the joy you'd experience seeing, grasping and biting into a potato after two days of no food. Try to imagine the warmth another human being can pass on by proximity when you're living in a forest in Winter. In other words, strip yourselves of civilization and see how you fare – not for a day, but for years on end. Could you do it without demeaning others, without reducing others to the status of 'less important' than you? In Carol Reed's The Third Man, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) justifies his drug trafficking by asking his friend Holly (Joseph Cotten) to look at the dots below them as they move higher on a Ferris wheel. What consequence would it be to Holly or Harry Lime if one of those dots was just snuffed out? It's not a convincing justification by any means but in a survival situation, these hypothetical conundrums become literally matters of life and death.
As Zwick's quote at the header confirms, the Holocaust is defined by loss not survival (as it should be given the awful ratio of the dead to the living) but survival under those conditions has to be recognized for what enabled it; the surprisingly profound depths of human caritas – caring and empathy, of goodness and brotherhood – literal and metaphorical – when faced with what must have seemed like an inhuman force. It's as if our light shines brightest when the darkness is complete and utterly terrifying. Yes, goodness often needs an automatic weapon to survive or to enact justice from the victims' points of view. But I'll leave it to the philosophers to debate the ethics of armed survivalists. There is no doubt, the story of Defiance is well worth the telling despite the inevitable backlash of 'historical inaccuracies' hurled at the production.
Defiance is the true story of three Belarusian brothers whose families were systematically slaughtered by the invading Nazi army as it marched through Poland in the early years of WWII. They team up and survive in the woods taking in as many survivors as they can. It is, to be flippant but not disrespectful, Schindler's Ark with real wood. The partly Bond-given star-wattage of Daniel Craig as the leader of the group is as charismatic as ever. He has a face of defiance, cold, flint-like and yet when those eyes crease with a smile it's as if someone has flipped a switch. The movie is borne on his shoulders and he does an excellent job of convincing me he was Tuvia Bielski, a simple man who chose to liberate and keep from harm hundreds destined for Treblinka or some other approximations of hell that were the gas chambers.
His brothers, played by Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell, maintain the filial bond (the manly hugs really tug at the heartstrings, no question) with believability and strength. There is never any sense between them that what they're facing is anything less than lethal force, an overpowering threat of extermination. While Bell stays to help Craig with the rapidly growing group of displaced Jews, Schreiber chooses to join what's left of the rag tag Russian army, also operating from secret locations, an army that puts as many spokes in Nazi wheels as it can. This voluntary action separates the brothers. It also supplies the movie with a resulting emotional reunion, a movie staple. But it is done with grace and without too many Hollywood histrionics.
Nazis, as Steven Spielberg has found making the Indiana Jones movies, make ideal evil straw men. Just showing the insignia will do in most cases. Evil. There you go. Downright bastards, the lot of 'em. Of course, this is errant reductionism adhering to the ludicrous Bush doctrine that "...you are either with us or against us". But in movies, you have two hours to tell your story and sometimes that reductionism is inevitable. We are asked, not unreasonably, to take sides and see things from the survivors' point of view but the Nazis were consigned to be bullet fodder and a powerful metaphor for the evil than men are capable of. Even though I didn't know the historical details, Zwick directs in a very workmanlike fashion (this is by no mans to demean his efforts) so that each story beat is sharply in focus and presented matter-of-factly.
And there are some real surprises along the way, surprises I'm assuming have some basis in fact. One of the ideas in war is to resist the temptation to behave like your enemy – a very British attitude. Revenge dictates that this little aspiration goes up in smoke pretty quickly. When a lowly Nazi (a fair haired boy, almost an innocent) is dragged in front of the survivors, all of whom are aching with grief, they begin slowly to lash out, their rage and impotence spewing out of them like Vesuvial anger and soon the boy is pummeled to death by men, women and children as Craig watches and moves off making no attempt to intervene. You wear the insignia, you're culpable. Ouch. Such a cascade of grief needed something to smash against.
Both brothers hear of their lost families quite early on which again smoothes the way for Hollywoodian romance (for both Craig and Schreiber). Even Jamie Bell gets a wedding. According to the end title cards, these "woods weddings" actually lasted and were not created by Zwick and company to tick the boxes of standard narrative demographic necessity. Schreiber's partner initially uses her body to entice Schreiber to protect her and being a full blooded male, he's happy to join in the arrangement but by the close, their relationship has endured. What's striking in terms of character (and this must have happened or there'd be hell to pay if it was made up) is that Craig is prepared – even coughing his guts up with Typhoid – to go to the very limits of civility and tiptoe past the threshold of barbarism to maintain his authority. This is another real surprise in a straightforward and reasonably predictable story.
To carp a tad, James Newton-Howard's score underlines the ethnic to the film's cost. It's so close to William's score for Schindler's List (that haunting violin that screams Judaism) that it seemed to be trying too hard to tell us something we really did already know – these people are Jewish. Is it me, or has Hollywood film music gone off the boil recently? When was the last movie you saw where you noticed a solid main theme that carried you through the drama and developed as the film and characters did? Maybe a movie's sound track is now so over-produced, something drops through the digital cracks. I'm not saying it's a bad score, just an overtly safe one. Readers of this site will know just how highly I regard Mr. Newton Howard's work.
The acting is solid (with one overly-theatrical wail that could have been performed with a bit more veracity), the production design is suitably cold and uncomfortable (you could feel the chill watching some of the Winter shots), the digital effects are invisible (just as they should be) and the story is amazing. Like Ron Howard's Apollo 11, the truth sometimes makes for some predictability but there's no denying the humanity on show and there are 1,200 souls and their descendents who would not be here if it weren't for the extraordinary bravery of these brothers. Any movie that celebrates that courage and does it with some dignity as Zwick's does, deserves recognition.