The beginning of the movie is gripping, to say the least. An evil regime has taken over Belarus and decided to target Jews. Target, meaning kill whoever they felt like killing and capture or imprison (sometimes in ghettos) everyone else. There are gut-wrenching scenes of children being taken from their parents that leave my insides in knots.
I can’t help but think: what if this happened to me? What if I were taken to a concentration camp, my wife taken to another, and my two boys taken to even another camp? Or worse, what if some evil people just decide to come into my home and kill some of us while the others watched? Morbid thoughts, but some movies like Valkyrie and now Defiance have led me to ask myself… and feel.
The Jews in this movie are not only forced to think about these issues, but are forced to live through them. This may be unfathomable to us here in the United States of America, but I am sure I am not alone in thinking I would never see the day we were attacked within our borders (9/11), Communist China would be our biggest lender, and the government would be dictating what banks and automakers should be doing.
I am sure the scenes from the beginning of this movie were unfathomable to the Belorussian Jews that it happened to. Yet they were forced to live with being overrun by Nazis. Many who were not led to concentration camps or imprisoned within a ghetto system fled to the forests. Those who fled to the forest eventually found their way to a camp led by four brothers named Bielski. The eldest, Tuvia, and second, Zus, were the leaders. The fact that they led these people to live through two harsh winters and walk out of the forest 1,200 strong is simply miraculous.
Defiance is the dramatic telling of the story of these brothers, mainly centering around Tuvia and Zus. Here are some themes that I encountered while watching this movie…twice:
Best Revenge is to Live
The growing “gang” or “tribe” really struggled with the idea of becoming an otriat, or militia group, that attacked the Nazis and those who helped them round up Jews. In the end, those who followed Tuvia decided to not become animals, “like them.” They decided that the best revenge was to stay alive. The arms they collected were used to defend themselves and to take what they needed from nearby farmers and merchants, especially those who helped the Nazis.
When I was younger I loved a movie called Red Dawn, in which Cuba invaded the United States aided by the Soviet Union. A group of young adults banded together to become a militia that successfully attacked the Cubans using guerrilla warfare. I thought Defiance was going to be a movie like that. After my first viewing I was a bit upset that it was not, but now I love it.
I can see the revenge that these 1,200 who survived have exacted on the Nazi regime which is no more. The 1,200 have multiplied into the tens of thousands. They lived. They didn’t have it easy and many of them never saw the satisfaction of out-surviving the Nazis, but they have had the last word nonetheless.
I pray for that kind of patience and perserverance.
In the special features, which are exceptional, I got the picture that the Bielski brothers were just normal Belorussians. They were uneducated laborers who had no military background, but when called upon they rose to the occasion. These men led 1,200 people to live and defend themselves in the forest even though Hitler’s Nazis were looking for them for two years. They led these people even through infighting.
The amazing thing is they never asked for any recognition. Throughout the movie you can see the struggle Tuvia has wondering why everyone is following him. In the extra features, it shows the Belski children and grandchildren coming to grips with who Tuvia and Zus really were… some of them had no idea.
I, on the other hand, love recognition to a fault. These men went decades without being recognized as heroes. The only person I know who is like that is Jesus, who in human terms never amounted to much. He stayed in his own country, never had a mega following, never wrote a best selling book. What he did do was die for each and every one of our sins.
As I alluded to above, these folks went through things we can’t even imagine. Along the way their faith was stretched. At one point, during a funeral, one of them asks God to choose another people! Yet in the end, that same person professes faith again with his dying breath. Many who go through so much struggle and suffering come out with so much faith, much like that character.
Yet I find myself praying for safety, comfort, and ease. I wonder why my faith is lacking.
I often wonder why so many movies like Defiance and Valkyrie about the Nazi regime and those who would stand up against it are coming out. Is it a history lesson for those of us that did not live through that time? Is it a harbinger of things to come? I don’t know… but I do know that I admire the group, led by the Bielskis, that persevered, ended up heroic survivors, and gained amazing faith in such trying circumstances.