Sunday, January 18, 2009

Edward Zwick's "Defiance": "Fiddler on the Roof" Meets "Lord of the Rings"

So maybe they should call this movie "Sharpshooter on the Roof" or "Lord of the Shpilkes." As Randy Gervais said to Kate Winslet on the Golden Globes: "do the Holocaust movie, you can't go wrong."

That is to say, this is yet another good Nazi / Holocaust movie in a year that seems to be full of them. I guess with a tragedy as immense as the Holocaust there are an innumerable number of stories to tell, because this subject just seems to keep on giving. However, as good as this movie is, I really think it could have been better.

First, I should confess that this movie holds a particular affection for me, since it's about Belorussian Jews (that's the westernmost area of Russia containing classic schtettle towns like Minsk and Pinsk) who take up arms against the invading Nazi's, forming perhaps the only known somewhat organized Jewish armed resistance movement: hiding out in the woods for over three years and rescuing 1200 Jews in the process. The heroes in this movie are the brothers Bielski, a quartet of brothers of varying ages and temperaments, who grow from being simple farmers and runabouts to leaders of an armed resistance.

My ancestry is precisely from Belorussian Jews, who are a bit more down-to-earth, adventurous, and handy with a gun than there more cerebral German counterparts (the brothers Bielski remind me an awful lot of my cousins, who have grown up to become 1) a navy captain, 2) a biker /writer / pilot and 3) a police SWAT team marksman.) In other words, these are Jews who may spout the old maxim "if you save a life, you're responsible for it," but they have great facility with weapons, and little hesitation about using them.

Daniel Craig (of James Bond fame...and Munich, interestingly enough) is cast as the elder Bielski, Tuvia (yep, same name as the Fiddler guy). Liev Schreiber is the second eldest, Zus, who has to live in his brother's shadow and develops some deep resentment. Here we have the classic cinematic chestnut of a single personality divided into two, with the cinematic arc being about how the two halves will come together. So while Tuvia starts off as a leader able to organize the panicked and traumatized refugees - but who's decisions may not be the most strategic - Zus is the man of action who learns quickly the tactics of warfare survival, but has difficulties getting the others to follow him. So the movie, in addition to being a study of how a group of Jews learn to drop their books and survive in the woods, is also a bromance between the brothers, and how they learn to become more like each other.

Unfortunately, both Craig and Schreiber seem to be miscast. Daniel is just wrong for the part: he's never struck me as ethnic, and he's way too forceful and world weary from the beginning to be a naive farm boy who must learn to grow into a leader. And though Schreiber is of course ethnically cast perfectly, he's really too old, as Craig is, for the role of the second brother. Both of these parts should have been played by younger men in their late twenties. But apparently, the stars must have been necessary for achieving the financing and studio backing to get the film made. Which is unfortunate, since both men overplay the parts and fail to wring the necessary subtly out of important moments (though, to be fair, they do well with the emotional scenes when a few strategic tears are required).

But the real important moments in this film often center around decisions to kill. For a Jew, such a decision is a weighty one...and the scenes set us up well to examine the moral questions about killing for revenge, or survival, or self defence. But while we're set up for these questions well in the screenplay, neither the actors nor the director seem to want to examine them: instead, what seems more pressing is to create a kind of Jewish action movie, replete with heroes, battles, and unlikely rescue. (There is one scene in the woods, involving a captured German soldier, that is directed with a provocative bent...but like the others, the provocation seems to move on without examining what one would expect to be its lasting effects.) All that quickly moving action is great, I suppose, for the Jews like me in the audience who want a hero to cheer. I guess for everyone else, though, it'll seem like just another formulaic war story.

Which is too bad. The question of Jews fighting back - and what that means both for Jews and for everyone else - is certainly a very relevant topic right now, given what's happening in Gaza. This movie starts to go there, but only part way. Much of the direction seems to want to inflect a kind of Yiddish kibitzing style (one can't help but think of Woody Allen's parodies of Greek chorus in some of the refugee debate scenes), which feels totally wrong conflated with other scenes of narrow escape that seem to be inspired from the trek to Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings. In between all that - and tying it all together - are breathtakingly beautiful scenes of the forest in which the Jews hide and make their home, and this forest becomes alive, a third major character in the movie, that both hides the Jews and tests them. As the seasons change we understand the extreme unlikeness of their survival and the discipline it requires; and when spring comes again, we feel well both the new opportunities and new dangers.

So when you put it all together, there are moments of beauty and moments of great dramatic weight and tension; moments of vicarious thrills and moments of ethnic introspection. What seems to be missing from the film, however, is a single, coherent vision of what it all means. The screenplay is great, the story a unique and interesting one, and the emotion fully felt. And the deep feeling for the background of the characters and the land is certainly exhibited in the scenery and wardrobe. But this movie ends up being simply good when it could have been great, when it could have decided that it didn't need to be a box-office action thriller, and could have simply told a simple and remarkable tale, with humanity and vision. Maybe, being close to the subject matter, I'm being a little too hard on it, for it's a good movie, that's for sure. I certainly got something out of it - I understood my cousins more.

Maybe the problem is that I just saw The Reader, and after that movie, it's not fair to compare another film that touches the same subject. Still - go see it. You'll enjoy it, but you'll see what I mean. I'm not sure this one is quite good enough to end up on this season's Oscar's list, with so much other excellent competition out there.

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