Watching Defiance with Gaza on my mind

January 29, 2009

Edward Zwick's new movie tells the story of Jewish partisans during the Second World War.

I SAW Defiance during the final phase of Israel's murderous (some would say genocidal) assault on Gaza. Unless you live in a very peculiar bubble, you can't help noticing the obvious parallels between the struggles for survival of the Jews of Defiance and the Palestinians of Gaza. Despite Defiance director Edward Zwick's fanatical support for the state of Israel, this is a great film that everyone should see.

Defiance is based on the true story of 1,200 Jews in Belarus who survived deep in the forest, as the Nazis invaded and overran that part of Poland and the Soviet Union during the Second World War. They were led by the Bielski brothers--Tuvia (played by Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell)--and were known as the "Bielski partisans."

The Bielski brothers were natural leaders of their band of survivors because in pre-war years, they were well-established members of their farming village. They knew the forest, the cops, the finks and who their friends were. They also knew how to use firearms. These are the same job qualifications for leaders of a guerrilla army.

The film begins in the early days of the Nazi invasion. The German army and the SS overrun the Bielskis' village, and Jews are rounded up to be sent to concentration camps. Belarusian collaborators work hand-in-glove with the Nazis, hunting down Jews who escape the initial dragnet. The Bielski brothers escape into the forest, and over the course of several days, they find others who have also escaped.

Their numbers slowly grow until they reach over a thousand. They build a village in the forest and survive by smuggling, stealing and leading armed raids on the Nazis and their collaborators. One of best scenes in the film is when Tuvia assassinates the Belarusian cops who murdered his father.

Zwick doesn't romanticize life in the forest village. Death is always close at hand, whether in the form of the Nazis, typhus or starvation. The Bielski brothers are also torn on the best course of action to take to survive. Tuvia wants to protect those already under their protection, while Zus wants to carry out more military actions against the Nazi.

Review: Movies

Defiance, directed by Edward Zwick, starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell.

A violent dispute erupts between the brothers, and Zus joins a band of Red Army partisans who are waging a guerrilla war against the Nazis. But Zus discovers that all that remains revolutionary about Stalin's Red Army partisans is the name. It is rife with anti-Semitism. Zus rejoins his brothers after several months.

The Nazis, however, are fighting a losing battle on the Eastern Front. They launch a huge offensive to wipe out the Red Army and the Bielski partisans. They plan to surround the forest and exterminate their opposition. The Bielski brothers lead their people out of the forest through a massive swamp, and then fight and defeat the German Army unit that is sent to block their escape.

It's nice to watch a film in which Jews kill lots of Nazis. After the war, the Bielskis emigrated to the United States and lived in obscurity for many decades--until Polish Holocaust survivor Nechama Tec, who heard stories of them as a child, tracked them down and told their story.

THERE ARE some important differences between the film and the historical record of the Bielski partisans. According to the book They Fought Back, the Bielski partisans were known for:

[attacking] police patrols, mining railways, derailing German troop trains, blowing up bridges and electric stations, cutting telegraph and telephone communications, and ambushing German soldiers. They also took part in punitive expeditions to villages that collaborated with the Germans. Bielski's partisans became famous for their daring attacks on the enemy. Many were later decorated by the Soviet government for heroism.

The scale of the Bielski's activity is only hinted at in the film.

There is no doubt that this film will be popular in Israel and among the friends of Israel, even though there is no heavy-handed Zionist message in the film. I think Zwick probably thought that this would be a natural reflex for an American audience. The Bielskis fought one of the most powerful armies in the world and survived.

Roger Ebert certainly had this instinct. "This conflict--between helping our side or harming theirs," according to Ebert, "is seen even today in the controversy over the invasion of Gaza, with Israel playing the role of the Bielski settlement."

It's more the case that Gaza is the modern-day Bielski settlement, facing one of the most powerful armies in the world.

Zwick made Glory, the best film ever about the American Civil War. He knows how to make a film about wars and their social dimensions. In a recent interview in the Atlantic, he was asked what the Bielski partisan experience meant to him. He said:

It certainly means to me that people with nothing, anticipating dying at any moment, nonetheless built schools and found love, marriages that lasted 60 years and that they lived fully and maintained their humanity in an extraordinary way. Someone wanted to deny them their humanity, and they refused to have their humanity denied.

Someday, hopefully, an American director will have the guts to make a film about the Palestinian struggle for their humanity.

Further Reading

From the archives