By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
Zwick is one of them, and if there’s one instance of the road to perdition paved with fat budgets and good intentions, it’s Defiance, or, as I prefer to call it, Custersky’s Last Stand in Belarus. This fact-based story of three Jewish brothers who set up a forest community of ghetto-massacre survivors while wreaking divine justice on the Krauts and their sympathizers may look like a Holocaust movie—it has lots of extras running around with rags and hollow cheeks—but it’s really an inquiry into the different management styles of the Yiddish superhero, no victim he. Daniel Craig, playing his second Jew after Munich with gimlet blue eyes ablaze with leadership potential, stars in the do-I-have-to? Gary Cooper role. Liev Schreiber at least looks the part as the belligerent bro who’d like to see a little less agonizing and a lot more payback. And Jamie Bell, an even more unlikely looking member of the tribe, is the peacemaking youngest brother.
While Craig rides around on a white horse, mulling whether to kill it for food, Schreiber splits off and joins the partisans for some real action, only to learn the hard way that Russians are not much keener than Germans on Jews. There are subtitles and vaguely East European accents; there is romance and rebirth, tears and regular pauses for gallows humor (at which we Jews are known to be very good, on account of our long history of persecution): “Eez khard to be friend of Jew,” sighs a righteous Gentile. “Try being one!” the Jew in question snorts.
There is at least one audible theme directed at the State of Israel: Should a Jew seek vengeance, or save lives? (On this matter, there was no doubt in the minds of a crowd of older Jewish people at a screening sponsored by the Museum of Tolerance, who clapped loudly when the Jews finally stuck it to the Germans and their stoolies.) And lest it be unclear in the text, Zwick elaborates in the production notes, “It’s a story that compels us to ask ourselves: What would I have done in those circumstances?” This is a question well-worth asking in an age when we cluck passively while genocides rage all around us, though it’s hard to see how it’s addressed in Defiance. Zwick goes on, “And in that way, I think, it becomes a deeply personal experience” (emphasis mine). In what way? That we are all, by extension, victims of the Nazis?
Is it weird that the only true recent Holocaust movie that’s also pretty good, The Counterfeiters (based on the life of a Jewish forger who was far from a saint), came out of Austria, which also produced Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, a documentary interview with Hitler’s private secretary that’s far superior to the similarly themed German film Downfall and is a searing challenge to us all to ask—as Zwick tries to in Defiance—what we would have done under the circumstances? The soul of Germany under Nazism is always worth examining, but not much good will come from Good, which takes on the potentially interesting question of passive collusion with Nazism, but is so incompetently mounted by Brazilian director Vicente Amorim (it takes a clumsy directorial hand to make Viggo Mortensen come on like Sesame Street’s Mr. Noodle) as to be utterly incoherent. At the end, the stunned professor totters around a remarkably cleaned-up concentration camp, seeing the light at last. I mean, who knew?
Given the record, Klawans may be right to call a halt on Holocaust movies. We may not—indeed, we may never—be ready to understand the worst genocide in human history so far. The last word may come from the end of The Reader, whose narrator comes begging for absolution for the former camp guard he had loved, from a Jewish survivor (Lena Olin) who was her victim. “Nothing came out of the camps,” she tells him. “Nothing!”
Defiance was directed by Edward Zwick; written by Clayton Frohman and Zwick. Opens at select theaters in January.
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