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Wednesday, December 31, 2008
For violence and language
Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Tomas Arana, Mark Feuerstein
Ed Zwick, Clay Frohman
The film revolves around Jewish brothers (Craig, Schreiber and Bell) living in Nazi-occupied Poland who escape into the Belarussian forest where they join Russian resistance fighters in battling the Nazis.
Defiance (2008) | Review
Life as an Act of Faith
"Our revenge is to live. Every day of freedom is life as an act of faith."In 1941, as the Germans are killing Jews in Belorussia, a community of partisans lived in the forests and tried as best they could to survive. When the area was liberated two years later, there were about 1,200 alive in this group. Their descendants now number over 10,000. Their story is told in Defiance.
Although the story is about the whole community, it focuses on the brothers who served as leaders: Tuvia, Zus, and to a lesser extent, Asael Bielski. Tuvia, the oldest brother, provides the main leadership. They differed from most partisan groups in that they did not exist to fight Germans (although they would when they had to) but to keep as many Jews alive as they could.
In focusing on the brothers the film looks at the conflicting goals and sentiments of the community as a whole. The question of the uses of violence is played out in the personal relationship between Tuvia and Zus. Zus wants to take on the Germans and their collaborators at every chance. Tuvia, on the other hand, wants to keep the Jewish community alive. Zus would like a powerful fighting machine, but Tuvia brings in the elderly, women, and children. Zus is willing to slaughter farmers for supplies, but Tuvia says that they must get what they need without killing. Overall, Tuvia is portrayed as the more moral, but the goals in such a situation often move beyond ethics. When the community is starving, how far can you go to feed them? When the issues come to a head, Zus goes off to join with the Red Army.
Building a community is a very important part of Tuvia's leadership. Everything is shared. Those with skills are given jobs (a watchmaker repairs guns). Everyone learns to use weapons. There are new families created (such as a man with a "forest wife"—his wife for the duration of the time in the forest since he has another wife in town). One of the best scenes showing the community is the wedding between Asael and Chaya—the whole community joins in celebration. Children are taught biblical stories.
While Tuvia may be the moral light in the story, he is not without his own faults. There is a brutality that builds in such life-and-death situations. Tuvia has no problem summarily shooting someone who refuses to submit to his authority. He stands by silently as the people of the camp cathartically beat a captured German soldier to death.
There may be brutality, but there is also a certain sense of spirituality. The community draws on its religious roots in many ways. As people are trained in firearms, they are told this is not a gun, but the jawbone of an ass and David's sling. The Exodus from Egypt is a theme that seems to fit the community. Tuvia can at times be seen as a Moses figure. But there comes a point where he cannot figure out a way to cross their "Red Sea." It is Asael who takes the people to safety. There is also a reminder of how challenging this experience is in terms of faith. At the burial one of the men prays, "We have run out of tears. We have run out of prayers. Choose another people. Take back the gift of our holiness."
Even in the darkness of such times, there was also a far off hope. As the people began to create a hidden village in the forest, Tuvia tells them, "Today we will start rebuilding the lives you have lost. This is the one place in all Belorussia where a Jew can be free." There is a scene where Tuvia has gone into the ghetto to bring people out before they are slaughtered. As the community listens to the pros and cons of leaving, a rabbi tells Tuvia, "We are waiting for God." Later one of the intellectuals of the forest community tells Tuvia that he almost lost faith, but believes that Tuvia was sent by God.
While the film probably takes liberties with the actual history (and all films do), Defiance is a testament to the heroic struggle to survive, to the community, and to the Bielskis for their leadership. It also serves as a reminder that God does send a light into even the darkest times. Sometimes it may be in an unlikely vessel.
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