The 2009 film Defiance, based on Nechama Tec’s book by the same title about four brothers, Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron Bielski, is a drama about Jewish resistance to the Nazis. The acting is excellent all-around. The compelling screenplay was written by producer Edward Zwick and Clayton Frohman. Eduardo Serra provided the breathtaking cinematography.
After their parents and neighbors are killed in attacks on Jewish homes in their rural Belorussian village, the brothers begin to strike back at the Nazis. The eldest brother, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), is diplomatic and idealistic. His younger brother, Zus (Liev Schreiber), is militant and bent on killing as many Nazis and Nazi collaborators as possible, no matter what the cost.” (Though not relevant to the plot, it would have been nice if the writers had explained the Yiddish name, “Zus” rather than leaving audiences to believe that the character was named after a Greek god.)
An important part of the story is much younger brother Asael’s quick maturation and development of leadership skills in face of the would-be destroyers of Jews and of the conflict between his older brothers. The youngest brother, Aron, is still a child.
The elder two brothers are certainly of one mind when it comes to avenging the vicious attack on their parents’ farm, instigated by a local police captain who was greedy for the bounty of $500.00 placed by the Nazis on every Jewish head. Tuvia himself kills the man and his two sons in front of that man’s wife, and then the brothers go after the German soldiers with whom this official sought to curry favor. They gather weapons and take to the woods, where they find other Jews in hiding and where many more Jews start seeking them.
Yet differences between the two eldest brothers are sharp, even violent. Zus wants to eliminate any collaborator or withholder of help, and to refuse entrée to their group of anyone but able-bodied fighters. Even the youngest brother declares at one point, “blood for blood.”
Tuvia insists that if the brothers are going to resist the Nazis and gather other Jews to help, they must include everyone and not unnecessarily alienate the local peasants. “We cannot afford to lose friends,” he says. “We will not lose anyone. Our revenge is to live. We are not thieves and murderers.” Tuvia declares, “This is the one place in all of Belarus where a Jew can be free.”
Tuvia consistently adheres to his ideals, though he recognizes that the resisters must be tough to gain the respect and perhaps even the fear of the peasants, if for no other reason than to procure food. Tuvia insists: “We must not become like them.” He notes: “We are hunted like animals but we are not animals. Everyday [survival] is like an act of faith. If we should die trying to live then at least we die like human beings.
Most of the film is about Tuvia’s struggle to build a community where everyone is involved according to the best of his or her capacity. Among the many hard lessons he must learn is to be ruthless with callous insurgents.
The film reminds us constantly of the sheer miracle of survival of over 1,000 souls who were constantly hunted by Nazis, whose neighbors were more than willing to turn them in for money or even for butter, who faced the dangers of wildlife as well as the ravages of disease, brutal winters, hunger, depression and fear. In one scene, Tuvia must kill a horse he cherishes so that people can have meat.
Different Paths to Resistance
For his part, Zus decides that joining the Russian army would be a more effective way of fighting Nazis. Yet he finds himself battling anti-Semitism in the army, and soon realizes that the Russians would have no qualms about killing Jewish resisters perceived as getting in their way. Zus wins the respect of the Russians through his sheer warrior bravado, but in many ways he becomes a necessary liaison between the groups, and events force a reconciliation between him and Tuvia. The only unanswered question left by the film is how Zus managed to break away from the Red Army, whose “deserters” were shot, in order to rejoin Tuvia.
Tuvia achieves his greatest coup when he convinces most of the Jews of a nearby town-turned-ghetto to come to the forest community rather than be sent to Nazi death camps. Some choose to take their chances in the camps. The rabbi in the ghetto declares it best for the people to wait for God. A community leader is concerned that for everyone who escapes, twenty are killed. Later, some of the people want to return to the ghetto with its certain death. In many ways, whether Korah-like rebellion or complaints and crying to “return to Egypt,” or the showdown with mortal enemies and the ultimate crossing over, this story parallels the biblical Exodus, and Tuvia as another Moses. The film notes that the irony is not lost on the characters that the last, redemptive encounter with the Nazis must take place on Passover.
The film does a good job of depicting the diversity of the Jewish community in Eastern Europe, from the socialist secularists to the ultra religious. A confused sentry with no aptitude for his job provides comedic effect. There is a nice sampling here of debates between the groups that were typical by the early twentieth century not only in communities but in individual families. In the forest community some Jews pray and some play cards, some work (and fight) with their hands and some are intellectuals who learn to work with their hands. Feminist issues also arise and we know that policies will change as soon as the question is asked: “Why is there a rule against women having guns?
Tuvia and Zus do have issues with Jews who belonged either to the wealthy class or to the scholarly circle, parties who spurned them in the past. There is a definite suggestion here, as well, that the elder brothers were suited to their calling as rebel leaders because they had always been renegades and even rogues. Even their old Hebrew School teacher, who decried their “wildness” years before, comes to recognize that the unruly are the least likely to abide by bad and dangerous laws and to accept the status quo in a world gone mad.
Defiance has its melodramatic aspects, especially a funeral scene in which the teacher (an ordained rabbi?) challenges God: “Choose another people….Take back the gift of our holiness.” For a while the rabbi’s rant seems a bit gratuitous, but in a death scene later on it makes sense. Some might find for a moment an unseemly grandiosity in Tuvia’s riding atop a white horse, but in an instant we understand that this was Tuvia’s necessary moment of transformation as a leader, and in a later instant we learn that, with heavy heart, he sacrifices his empowering trophy so that the community might survive.
Morality in Defiance
The film delves into questions of morality. It takes pains to contrast those who opt for traditional Jewish marriage in the wilderness with those who take a “forest wife.” It does not glorify the latter situation, but does indicate at the end that Zus remained married his entire life to the woman he met in the wilderness. There is an implication here that where children were fortunate to flee together with parents, a sense of traditional mores remained strong. The film reminds us, especially when Zus learns of the death of his wife and child, that one cannot but refrain from condemning breaches in time-honored mores, yet the wedding depicted here does show that people, even young people, could have followed those mores had they chosen to do so.
There is a suggestion here that pregnancies just did not occur because Tuvia stipulated that the community could not survive with babies. Yet there is a strong “pro-life” stance here in Tuvia’s acceptance of a baby born to a woman who had hidden her pregnancy, the result of rape by a Nazi guard. In moral issues, the film assumes an objective tone, in line with its approach to “forest wives.” This is true even in the scene in which a young Nazi soldier is captured and the community would become an avenging mob.
Particularly moving in the film are the scenes in which Gentiles try to do the right thing (well, one Gentile) despite the dangers of Nazi tyranny and their struggle with ingrained anti-Semitism. A peasant who provides weapons to Tuvia and Zus and hides Jews and helps them in other ways initially complains, “You people. Why is it so…[expletive] hard being friends with a Jew?” Tuvia replies, “Try being one.” This man, who admired the brothers’ father, proves to be quite noble and is later hanged by the Nazis in his own barn and covered with a sign, “Jew Lover.” One of the most moving scenes in the film is when the brothers bury him and craft a makeshift cross for him.
In a uniquely powerful and even stunning way, Defiance recalls and pays tribute to Holocaust resistance with integrity and thoughtfulness, pull and inspiration. The DVD belongs in the collection of any individual or school or organization that values the full story of Jewish (and Russian) responses to Nazi atrocities.
Published in the “National Jewish Post and Opinion,” Sept. 9, 2009