Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 21, 2009 11:02 am 
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Hath not a Jew cojones?

On the fringes of what is now Belarus in World War II after their family was slaughtered by Nazis and Polish collaborators in December 1941, the Jewish Bielski brothers fled to the forest and hid out there to fight the Germans and the collaborators and save fellow Jews. Gradually many joined them from the ghetto in nearby Navahrudak, a town just seized from Poland by the Soviets. The tough, feisty Bielskis took in everyone, including the malbushim, handicapped or weak ghetto escapees quite unable to fight. When the Germans were defeated in the summer of 1944, there were 1200 Jewish forest survivors that had been saved by the "Bielski Brigade." This puts the Bielskis on a level with Oscar Schindler. But their story isn't as well known. Nor, as it turns out, is this movie as powerful as Spielberg's Schindler's List. Defiance has intense moments, a few of which are as sweet and plaintive as something out of Italian neo-realism, but this effort as a whole is conventional, unsubtle, and unmemorable. What a pity. All those good actors; all that slogging through cold water; all those scenes in the snow of people wearing gloves with the fingers out.

We've had a spate of year's-end World War II movies with Europeans incongruously speaking English: Valkyrie, manned by Brits but with Tom Cruise at the helm; The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, where the Nazis all have plummy English accents; The Reader, where Winslett and Fiennes sound more Teutonic than the authentically German David Kross and Bruno Ganz. This time actors talk English with fake Eastern European accents but have whole conversations in Russian. These are compromises that, despite lingering resistance to subtitles, seem more and more retro and naive.

As Joshua Rothkopf points out, Defiance is a far cry from "Holocaust hand-wringing" like Reader and Striped Pajamas. It's an example of the "new Hebrews-kicking-ass subgenre" like Spielberg's Munich. Defiance, Rothkopf says, "is history made over into wish-fulfillment psychodrama, into Exodus." This is seen in the casting of high-profile bad-ass Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski, the Brigade's leader, and the way his brother Zus (Lief Schrieber) dances around mowing down legions with a machine gun like the mad Israeli comrade in the 1982 Lebanon war described in Waltz with Bashir. The timing seems unfortunate, with the slaughter of Palestinians by Jews in Gaza that just took place. Macho Jews we know about. What this movie may make you wonder is why more Jews didn't have these qualities when the Nazis were exterminating them.

As Tuvia, Craig gets to show a vulnerability his made-over version of 007 lacks. After a severe illness, Tuvia falters as leader and almost collapses. You can see why after twice playing Bond, Craig couldn't resist a role of more complex humanity. Tuvia's firebrand opponent is brother Zus (Schreiber), whose desire for retribution leads him to abandon the forest enclave for a long period to fight alongside Russian partisans. This is a reverse opportunity for Schreiber to get tough and physical, since he's famous for playing Hamlet onstage. Asael (Jamie Bell) is a younger, more innocent Bielski brother who provides a thread of shy romance when he and the pretty, plucky Chaya (Mia Wasikowska) gradually fall in love, yet also shows great leadership. Bell has a present-ness and purity that come through well in this role. Alas, the movie plays the crude trick of trying to use cross-cutting to contrast Asael's forest wedding to Chaya with a violent shootout elsewhere in which Zus jumps about. Too often the movie's style is ham-handed but this is one of the worst moments. There were four Bielski brothers. The youngest, Aron (George MacKay), too young to lead, is so traumatized by witnessing his parents' slaughter that he cannot even speak.

Perhaps where the movie most shines is in little vignettes of the rescued ghetto Jews. Alexa Davalos graces the screen as Lilka Ticktin, the beautiful woman who pairs off with Tuvia and nurses him through his illness. A watchmaker is asked to fix a rifle trigger, does so in an instant and is told "you have a new job." "Everybody works," they're told. There are the intellectual luftmensch types who know how to play chess and dispute metaphysics but have difficulty driving a nail. The rabbi and the young leftist are certainly appealing, but too perfect and even too cute. As I'm not alone in noting, this is a story told to undermine Jewish stereotypes that ends by reinforcing them.

According to accounts, the refugee camp, which had to move from time to time, came to include a kitchen, mill, bakery, bathhouse, synagogue, medical clinic, and "a quarantine hut for those who suffered from infectious diseases such as typhus," says a Wikipedia entry. And "Herds of cows supplied milk." Though it does show the Bielskis stealing food from local farmers and raiding a military HQ to get antibiotics, the movie focuses only on the early months of the Bielski Brigade. It's overwhelmed by the effort to show Zus mowing down Nazis and confronting his Soviet comrades' anti-Semitism while also following the hideaways' complicated and exhausting struggle to survive the first winter. The clumsy cross-cutting sequence that chops up Asael's wedding only underlines this dilemma.

Defiance is pulled down by schematic staging, telegraphed plot points, and obtrusive background music. In a directorial career that now includes nine films Zwick has had some good moments. He didn't do all that badly with his 1986 David Mamet adaptation, About Last Night. Three years later his Civil War epic Glory put him on the map and helped make a big star of Denzel Washington. Legends of the Fall and The Siege are different kinds of mush, but Zwick showed in Blood Diamond, his last outing, that he can turn a potential potboiler into a rip-snorting action film with more than a dash of political awareness. The Bielskis' story is one that matters and needed telling. But Defiance is mired in conventionality and stereotypes and seems overwhelmed by the contrasts in its principals' personalities and experiences.

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