Jan 9, 2009

Movies - Defiance: Beyond Holo-kitsch

Richard Corliss

Should there be a moratorium on Holocaust movies? Stuart Klawans, the film critic of the Nation, says so in the Jewish magazine Nextbook (but not, oddly, in the Nation), and Ella Taylor tentatively endorses the suggestion this week in the Village Voice. Since these are two of the movies' most thoughtful commentators — who each happen to be Jewish — the proposal deserves consideration.

Edward Zwick, the TV producer (thirtysomething) and maker of Important Films (Glory, Courage Under Fire, Blood Diamond), writes in the New York Times that he felt a similar Holocaust-movie fatigue when offered the idea of a film on the Bielski brothers, a band of real-life Jews in Belorussia during World War II. "I groaned, 'Not another movie about victims,' " he writes. But he went ahead and made Defiance anyway.

At the moment, five new films that touch on the Nazis' Final Solution — Defiance, The Reader, Good (which prompted TIME critic Richard Schickel to call for a moratorium), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Adam Resurrected — are in theaters. A sixth, Valkyrie with Tom Cruise, is a Holo-cousin: it details a 1944 plot by German officers to kill Hitler. Taylor notes that since the early 1990s, when Steven Spielberg was preparing his Oscar-winning Schindler's List, there have been 170 Holocaust movies. (The Internet Movie Database lists 429 titles on the subject.) It has become not just a topic but a genre, one that, at its most reductive, exploits the awful events of that chapter in history to badger viewers, intimidate critics, elicit easy tears and serve as a back-patting machine for serioso directors. The excesses of the genre have spawned derisive nicknames: Holo-kitsch (Art Spiegelman's term) and Holocaust porn (which Taylor cites).

Yet the enormity of the event, and its dreadful intimacy — not the long-range crime of missiles fired across borders or dropped from planes, but people leading other people to gas chambers — make it a compelling, nearly irresistible movie theme. "What a wonderful subject to explore in as many ways as possible," indie mogul Harvey Weinstein told the New York Post. "I hope our children get educated about the Holocaust, so it will be 'Never again.' " Death-camp literature is such a reliable attention getter that a few writers have invented memoirs. This week Berkley Books canceled publication of Angel at the Fence when its author, Herman Rosenblat, acknowledged that the story of meeting his wife at Buchenwald was not true. Nonetheless, a movie version of the book is going forward.

Reviewing Claude Lanzmann's 9 1/2–hour documentary Shoah in TIME in 1985, I asked, "Why is this holocaust different from all other holocausts? In raw nightmare numbers, the Nazi extermination of 6 million European Jews ranks below the Soviet Union's systematic starvation of the rebellious Ukraine in 1932-33 (10 million by Stalin's count) and Mao's catastrophic Great Leap Forward into prolonged famine in 1957-62 (at least 27 million). Uganda and Kampuchea have produced more recent evidence" — alas, the examples of Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia could subsequently be added — "that Hitler's policy of mass murder as an instrument of statecraft was not unique.

"Yet the Final Solution remains the archetype of man's bestiality to man, and there are compelling reasons for this to be so. The villain: Hitler still seems the embodiment of melodramatic evil, a spellbinder sent from hell or central casting. The perpetrators: a civilized Western nation conceived the outrage of genocide and executed the plan with technological precision; if the Germans could do it, anyone could. The victims: the Jews, eternal outsiders, were traditionally treated by Christians with an uneasy mixture of envy and enmity. Here was the seed of ordinary anti-Semitism brought to rancid fruition."

Some Were Warriors
Zwick was especially rankled by the legacy of Jews as victims, as passive enablers of their own destruction. Thus his attraction for a film about the three elder Bielski brothers, who forged a community of refugee Jews in the Belorussian woods and fought off the soldiers hunting them down. They helped other Jews escape the Warsaw ghetto. The Bielskis' heroism saved about as many Jewish lives as the hero of Schindler's List did. And they were family, not a wealthy Gentile whose act of paternalist benevolence can be stretched to absolve a generation of "good Germans." The Bielski tale showed that not all Jews were victims. Some were warriors.

Tough guys. The brothers may have been smugglers before the war. If they'd emigrated to urban America, they could have become enforcers for Arnold Rothstein or Legs Diamond. But in rural Eastern Europe, they use their chutzpah and woods-smarts to form a kind of kibbutz where they're the law. (You'll be reminded of two other recent movies about outdoor outlaws: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Che.) Torn from their farms and shops, they must steal food from the locals, some of whom turn the Jews in, some of whom risk their lives to protect them. The law of war is simple, harsh: German soldiers must die, as well as anyone in their company, including a woman they ambush on the road.

In this sylvan enclave, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), the eldest, is the de facto president, who insists that "We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals." His brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) is the impulsive general, whose motto is "Blood for blood." The two men war with each other almost as much as with the Nazis and Soviets who cross their path. The U.S. equivalent could be Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur. In movie terms they're Michael and Sonny Corleone: one the brains, the other the ruthless muscle, of a family forged in violence. The third brother, Asael (Jamie Bell), is less the Fredo than the Connie. He doesn't enforce protection; he needs it.

This stalwartly, generically acted movie occasionally stumbles over its ambitions; it would have been shapelier as a Dirty Dozen celebration of rogue warriors, but it spends much of its time on the intricacies of running an underground community (the messy, wrenching political decisions), on infusing romance by finding "forest wives" for the brothers (including the very foxy Alexa Davalos) and on a running debate between two stock characters, the rabbi and the secular scholar. Zwick likes gray as much as black and white, though he's better at portraying the taut confrontations of the Bielski brigade and their pursuers. There are moments when Defiance plays as a traditionally satisfying action movie.

One critic was not satisfied by the attempt to wring larger inferences from the brothers' heroism. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott writes that making a story about the Bielskis "is a perfectly honorable intention, but the problem is that, in setting out to overturn historical stereotypes of Jewish passivity, Mr. Zwick (who co-wrote the screenplay with Clayton Frohman) ends up affirming them. His film furthermore implies that if only more of the Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe had been as tough as the Bielskis, more would have survived. This may be true in a narrow sense, but it also has the effect of making the timidity of the Jews, rather than the barbarity of the Nazis and the vicious opportunism of their allies, a principal cause of the Shoah."

That's quite a stretch. Timidity in the face of overwhelming force is an issue relevant to any age, any people. The oppressed have always outnumbered the oppressors. So why, throughout history, did the victim majority not rise up and overthrow the ruling minority? Because the bad guys in power had the weapons and knew how to use them. Because the systems of social organization — the tribe, government, religion — taught that there was security in obeying the powerful and virtue in enduring pain in this life so as to be rewarded in the next. Because members of nearly every society, not just Germans under Hitler, or Jews in the camps, were trained to follow orders.

Defiance says it took grit, desperation and courage under fire to say, "Not this time," and fire back. Beyond that, it's a pretty good movie — a bold, uneasy mix of romance, political debate and vigorous action. Flawed as it is, the film mostly escapes the stigma of Holo-kitsch. In celebrating a people's will to live by any means necessary, Defiance too is worth celebrating. For now, you can postpone the moratorium.


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