Defiance (2008)

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This movie has been out for a while here in Thailand, is still playing and may also be in general release in the States. I highly recommend this movie.

Based on a true story and on the book by Nechama Tec, *Defiance: the Bielski Partisans,* the movie tells of the Bielski brothers in Nazi-overrun Poland (in what is now western Belarus) in early WWII who arm themselves and end up sheltering over 1,200 fellow Jewish refugees who would have otherwise been murdered by the Nazis. They lived in the forests for a few years, winters and all, evading capture and still contributing to the anti-Nazi resistance movement. It was not easy.

Tuvia Bielski – played by Daniel Craig, our new 007 star -- and his brothers, Zus, Aseal and Aron, find their parents murdered by the Nazis on their family farm. The parents are murdered simply because they are Jews, as are neighboring Jews. (Nazi bastards: this angers me beyond words.) In the bigger towns, Jews are put in ghettoes and forced to wear the Star of David (and you know the fate awaiting these people). A local Polish farmer helps by giving Tuvia a revolver, although there are only four bullets to go with it.

Revenge is the first motive of the brothers, but as they find more and more Jewish families needing protection they shift priorities to keeping them safe. This means fleeing to the forests. More and more refugee Jews join the Bielski camp regularly. They must move frequently as the Nazis penetrate the forests. They form a community with various craftsmen utilizing their skills, they have a hospital, school for the children, and even a system of law.

This territory had been in the Soviet orbit until the Nazis attacked eastward into the USSR, so the partisan fighters who are under the authority of the Soviet Red Army are the Bielski partisans’ uneasy allies. There was some mutual cooperation but a lot of tension between parties. There were Polish officials who were Nazi-collaborators as well as Polish anti-Nazi partisan groups not aligned with the Soviets. It was a confusing variety of parties involved.

Critics have faulted this movie on several counts, with many criticisms coming from Poland. There are some historical inaccuracies: especially the fact that the non-Jewish Polish resistance fighters are not given their due; also, the Bielski group may have been depicted as having more of a combat role than they actually had. Most important, some have alleged that some of the Bielski partisans were involved in the Naliboki massacre, where a town of Polish partisans was massacred by the Soviet partisans because they would not join the Soviet resistance units. It must be mentioned that the Bielski brothers themselves were never accused of being involved. Up to 130 Polish partisans in Naliboki were executed by the Soviet partisans, and the town was destroyed. Bielski family members counter that the Bielski group was not even in that area at the time of the massacre.

Whatever the truth is, it is always easy to fault or trash movies for their historical inaccuracies. As a lifelong devotee of history, I completely understand this demand for historical factuality, and I always want to see historians correcting and setting the record straight. But I am also a lover of art and see that “artistic license” must be given its due if art is to enlighten, entertain and ennoble us. Aristotle regularly revered history, but according to Rand he ranked the aesthetic considerations of artistic ennoblement even higher in importance, saying that fiction shows us life “as it might be and ought to be.” Art has a value of its own, which resonates within the human soul and can promote great human aspirations.

As for my own criticisms, an earnest young intellectual character in the Bielski camp made me wince when he counseled leader Tuvia Bielski about “community,” about everyone sacrificing their individual good for “the collective good.” We have heard the Collective Good pronounced as the highest good before: e.g., Rousseau, Marx, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Under this theory, individuals or minorities are not important and can be sacrificed at will to the “greater good” of the majority/collective. Collectivism of one stripe or another has flooded the modern world in blood. It sickens me to hear of it.

And yet I must admit that, historically, many Jewish intellectuals in Eastern Europe would have been heavily into collectivism at that time – although more into the communist socialist variety than the national socialist one. Collectivism was, after all, one of the most popular intellectual ideals of that whole bloody age. Many Zionists who later settled in Israel brought socialistic ideals with them from Europe (although the kibbutz settlements were always lacking in practicality and productivity and they always had to be subsidized by the state).

Also, collectivism works more successfully and humanely at the family level, whereas on a large scale it most often leads to disaster, robbery and murder. A possible exception to this size restraint is *military* collectivism within tightly-unified military units, when the extreme demands of life-or-death consequences force a unit-cohesion that is in some ways close to an extremely large family. In the military there can be an esprit-de-corps that bonds individuals together. Also, the Bielski camp was really becoming a “family” of sorts, in need of common survival and really making a pact to survive together. So I can understand and accept the portrayal of that young intellectual’s idealistic position as well as the Bielski camp’s harsh military discipline. They were desperate, and they were in their predicament together.

Criticisms aside, I thought that this was a great movie, worth seeing again. I heartily recommend that you check it out. It was filmed mostly in the forests of north-central Europe, not far from where the actual events took place. Good story and good acting.


-Ross Barlow.


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