After work last Friday, a few of us took a Prospect field trip to the local multiplex to see "Defiance," the new film about Jewish partisans hiding and fighting in the Byelorussian forests during the final years of World War II. The film is a deeply sentimentalized version of the true story of the Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron. The sons of a farmer/smuggler with ties to the Red Army, the brothers had the military skill and craftiness to save 1,500 Jews, some of whom they snuck out of Jewish ghettos.
In this interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the film's director, Edward Zwick, discusses some of the Zionist impulses behind the film — the desire to transform the Jewish people from an intellectualized, urbanized class into a society complete with soldiers, manual laborers, and farmers. Indeed, the class tensions in the film provide some of the more interesting plot lines. The Bielskis are villagers who've learned to mingle with their Christian neighbors. Tuvia is a veteran of the Polish army. But many of the people the Bielskis save are teachers, students, and craftsmen from towns and cities. They are ill-prepared to live in the forest. The most interesting of these characters is the socialist pamphleteer Isaac Malbin, who, like a proper kibbutznik, is concerned with creating "community" in the forest. His ideas triumph for awhile, until a roughneck Jewish fighter begins to terrorize the group with demands that fighting men get larger portions of food. Tuvia shoots and kills him, restoring order and proving that communal living must be subjected to traditional authority. At the film's denouement, Isaac is killed in a failed attempt to fling a grenade at a Nazi tank. What a hapless intellectual! He is also the only major young male character in the film not to have a love interest — despite the fact that he is played by the very handsome Mark Feuerstein, who looks especially fetching in spectacles.
The film's gender politics are also hopelessly regressive. The once-wealthy women whom Tuvia and Zus take up with are ridiculous set-piece characters. Zus' "forest wife," Bella, is especially grating. She seems to have taken special care to bring her lip gloss into hiding. "I think women should have guns," she tells Zus. "Why?" he replies. "Women have men to protect them!" Bella breathes, "Then I want protection," and puts Zus' hand on her breast. Wretched. Tuvia's future wife, Lilka, is an angelic nurse type who also shoots a dog. Hott.
All in all, I suppose I'd recommend "Defiance" because the historical episode it documents is such a fascinating one. But "Defiance" is simply not a great film — its creators succumbed almost completely to the urge to prettify and sentimentalize this story. When uneducated Tuvia climbs atop a white horse to lecture the partisans with soaring rhetoric about peace and liberty, you know there has been a significant departure from reality. And one that is not to the benefit of telling this tale of an essentially ugly, senseless period of human history.
cross-posted at TAPPED