Maybe it’s art imitating life, or life imitating art, but Hollywood couldn’t have timed the British release date of “Defiance” any better if they tried.
On January 9, as people queued to see Edward Zwick’s true story of the Jewish Bielski partisans, the Israeli Army intensified their military operations in Gaza.
“Defiance” features a triumvirate of Polish Jewish brothers who escape the Nazi extermination squads and set up camp in the gargantuan forests that are now part of Belarus.
At various points in the film the brothers and the mounting Jewish community that flock to them are surrounded on all sides by the Germans and assaulted by overwhelming force.
The comparisons with today’s conflict are hard to ignore. Like the Palestinians hemmed into the Gaza Strip, the Jews in “Defiance” cling steadfast to their culture and way of life the more it is threatened with destruction. The eldest brother Tuvia, played solidly by Daniel Craig, is instrumental in this way of thinking. ‘Our revenge is to live’ he stoically offers his followers.
If Tuvia is Moses then his brother Zus is David. Liev Schrieber portrays Zus as an exterminating Angel, the total antithesis of the Jewish victim so readily seen in other films featuring the Holocaust. He drinks hard and fights harder, causing a nearly catastrophic rift within the fragile community created in the forest.
Tuvia and Zus are of such immense physical stature they seem as imposing as the towering trees that surround them. When they clash, such is their collective bulk and brawn that they threaten to tear the ground in two like Old Testament super heroes. Both their ideological and brotherly struggle is reminiscent of the deep schism that divides the Israeli approach to the peace process. Do they live with the threat or strike back?
If Tuvia represents survival and Zus revenge, then the third brother, Asael, offers hope. Jamie Bell’s quiet and introspective performance brims with maturity and perfectly matches Asael’s growing importance within the group. He holds the beleaguered camp together when his elder brothers are unable to do that.
The community at its height numbered 1200 and one of the more fascinating aspects of the film is how the class system is reversed by the dire situation. The urban Jewish intelligentsia can no longer look down upon Tuvia and his brothers who were smugglers in their former life. They need their knowledge of the forest to keep them alive, forcing them back to the nature they have rejected.
The human conflict in “Defiance” is far better handled than the military one. Two of its major set pieces seem pedestrian next to say, “Downfall” or “The Pianist.”
Zwick has made a niche for himself over the years by making mainstream action movies with a message. “Glory,” “The Last Samurai,” and “Blood Diamond” have all featured controversial subjects and still managed to do well at the box office and at award season. Detractors of his work have often levelled the charge of historical inaccuracies, but there has always been a fine line between getting the facts right and never letting them get in the way of a good story.
“Defiance” will also have advocates of the so-called Jewish Conspiracy wringing their hands with glee at yet another film highlighting the horrors of the Jewish experience in World War 2. Conspiracy theorists believe that the Jewish power base in Hollywood, by constantly reminding us of the Holocaust, helps to justify Israel’s existence and its current military action against Hamas.
In his recent article for the Los Angeles Times ‘How Jewish is Hollywood?’ Joel Stein reveals that the eight studio chiefs who took out a full page ad in that newspaper demanding that the Screen Actors Guild settle its contract were all Jewish. He also pointed out that the other dramatis personae in the story were also Jewish. It doesn’t take a genius from the anti-Semitic brigade to latch on to this.
But who is listening to conspiracies? Stein is incensed that only 22% of Americans now believe ‘the movie and television industries are pretty much run by Jews’. This is down from 50% in 1964. The Anti-Defamation League released the poll in October 2008 and saw it as a triumph against stereotyping. Stein is more cynical, ‘Actually, it just shows how dumb America has gotten. Jews totally run Hollywood’.
“Defiance” is just one of many films that deal with World War 2 and The Holocaust in recent and weeks to come. We have already had “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” and “The Reader.” “The Look” and Tom Cruise’s latest, “Valkyrie,” both hit Britain shortly afterwards.
Conspiracies aside – why do we have a run of these films at the moment?
The simple answer is a question of dates. 2009 is the 70th anniversary of the start of the war in Europe. American history and the movie industry have colluded in the past to tell of America’s important contribution to final victory from 1941, their entry into the conflict.
‘History is written by the victors’ as Churchill said and without question the real victors of the Second World War were the Americans. Their writers just happened to have access to a multi-billion dollar media machine, Hollywood.
The original studio heads and founders were nearly all Jewish immigrants from persecution in Europe. They were happy to oblige their adopted home with sweeping epics depicting key American victories like “The Sands of Iwo Jima” and “Midway” whilst largely ignoring its allies’ contribution once the war had finished. This process has often been condemned in the British press over the last decade after the release of films such as “Saving Private Ryan” that totally exclude any allied involvement in D-Day.
At the same time they made films depicting the Holocaust such as “The Young Lions,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Schindler’s List.” Again these are easy targets for conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers like David Irving; but on a very human level they highlight the horrific cruelty that one person can inflict on another, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Furthermore, are we so naive or idealistic to think that the moneymen behind Hollywood are not going to plug their own causes once in a while? Anyway, we have come along way since the hypodermic model of passive audience participation so popular in the 1930’s after the Nazi and Soviet monopolization of their respective media institutions.
Movies like “Defiance” can’t get away with a wholesale heroic version of events anymore. History is no longer confined to books and Hollywood, but to the greatest propaganda leveller we have ever known, the Internet.
Any myths in a film like “Defiance” will therefore will be debunked before its general release by bloggers, reviewers and of course Wikipedia, leaving us with an average picture about extraordinary events and nothing more. Any propaganda value about Jews fighting back (read: Israelis fighting back) is quickly checked by the hours of updated footage from Gaza itself repeated on Al Jazeera, the B.B.C. or any news channel you care to mention. All conspiracies seem laughable by comparison.
Meanwhile, “Defiance’s” saving grace is that it often resembles a watered down version of Elem Klimov’s surreal, magical, and deeply disturbing masterpiece, “Come and See” – also about partisan fighters. So perhaps its real value is pointing audiences in the direction of other films about this atrocious subject, rather than being a rallying call to arms as others would wish to label it.