Torn between making an art movie and an uplifting entertainment feature, Edward Zwick can’t stop the gun-battles and genocide of his Holocaust movie Defiance from seeming like cheap thrills and mawkishness. It’s time for Zwick to man-up to his intelligence and go for broke. Defiance needed the moral and formal rigor of a Jean-Marie Straub film—if only to separate it from guilt-inducing memorials like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Reader, Adam Resurrected, Good and Valkyrie. Misguided “escapism” is ruining Zwick’s high-minded ideas.
Zwick relates the true-life story of Tuvia, Zus and Asael, the three Bielski brothers who formed an armed resistance gang when the German Army marched into Belorussia in 1941. The badass title suggests a revenge flick tinged with righteousness—a Holocaust movie where the Jews fight back. But Spielberg raised cinematic standards when Munich definitively addressed the moral quandaries of
Jewish aggression. Because Zwick is conscientious, Defiance is as much a response to Munich as it is a retelling of WWII yet his Bielski brothers tale slips into easy emotionalism such as Spielberg avoided.
Responding to Nazi massacres and Russian collaboration, the Bielskis—rural Jewish badboys—headed for the forest and set-up a base camp to defend themselves; their hideaway soon became a refuge for other Jews seeking shelter. Boasting, “We’re the Bielski otriad,” they set up a tribal community headed by the fearless Tuvia (Daniel Craig), macho, gun-loving Zus (Liev Schreiber) and teenage Asael (Jamie Bell) who looks up to his elder brothers’ masculine examples.
The wilderness situation is almost Biblical and this gives Zwick his singular theme: Defiance inevitably resembles legends of exile (especially when the commune begins to fracture from normal social interaction and Zus leaves to joins the Russian army). And that’s what brings Straub’s Moses and Aaron to mind. The brotherly rift between Tuvia and Zus recalls the theological discussion on monotheism that composer Arnold Schoenberg used as the basis of his opera Moses und Aron, which Straub adapted into his stringent yet richly aestheticized 1975 movie (New Yorker releases the DVD in January).
Straub’s strict visual precision and his meticulous ideation on themes of tradition and spirituality are exactly what’s missing from most Holocaust movies. A Zwick sequence where a woman is attacked by a wolf is no better than the usual reliance on fright, pity and sentiment. This prevents audiences from gaining a helpful view of tragic history or developing a empathetic sense of disaster. It also bungles the ethical dialectic between the Bielskis and those tentative Jews who escaped the city looking for sanctuary. “Our revenge is to live. We have been hunted like animals but we will not become animals,” Tuvia insists in his role as a new Moses.
No other Holocaust movie achieves Defiance’s relevant biblical parallels but Zwick doesn’t give the Tuvia/Zus argument enough concentration. As in The Siege, Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond, Zwick compromises complexity with maudlin formula. Even ascetic Straub let loose the glory of operatic argument (only Zwick’s debut Glory envisioned ethnic history with sufficient political/spiritual richness). But when Defiance poses survival against vengeance (courage vs. weakness, violence vs. survival), the arguments become trite. The climactic battle scenes are just noisy; they lack the unsettling shock-of-death featured in Munich and Saving Private Ryan and the mystery that Straub pondered.
Zwick’s failure is especially noticeable because Daniel Craig also played the most gung-ho member of the Mossad hit squad in Munich. Craig voiced the angriest part of Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s vengeance discussion: “I don’t care about anybody except Jews. The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood.” Critics who wished to control political discourse refused to recognize the irony in those lines. Defiance suggests that Zwick is more worldly and open-minded, but his Hollywood approach needs Spielberg and Straub’s sophistication.
Directed by Edward Zwick, Running Time: 137 min.
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