Home

FREEDOM FIGHTERS IN THE FOREST



Here's a little example of the persistence of history: the family that owned the land in northern France on which the Battle of Agincourt was fought in 1415, still owns it. They lost a father and two sons fighting the English in 1415, and they lost a father and two sons fighting the Germans five hundred years later.

Because it was a famous English victory against fearful odds, and because Shakespeare glorified the battle and the English king, the field has become a place of pilgrimage for English- and military history buffs.

A member of the family said to a recent visitor, “Your ancestors and our ancestors did terrible things to each other here. Why do you come?”

The film “Defiance” is based on a true story that took place during World War Two, when four Jewish brothers in Poland, the Bielskis, escaped to the forest of what is now Belarus, rescued Jews from the local ghettos, fought skirmishes against the Nazis, and set up a refuge that saved 1200 people by the war's end. Two of the brothers, Tuvia and Zus, who were leaders of the effort, later moved to America with the youngest, Aron. The middle brother, Asael, was killed late in the war.

The interest of the story is that it contains one answer to a question that surfaces periodically: why didn't Europe's Jews fight back against the Nazis? And of course the answer is, some did. But a very good thing about “Defiance” is that director Edward Zwick tries not to glorify the leaders or the battles.

Still, Zwick has a hard time of it, because the situation automatically casts the leaders as heroes – it can't help it. The parallels to the Robin Hood legend are almost too easy – the oppressed outlaws living in the forest, fighting guerrilla actions against heavily-armed oppressors – but there is little feasting on the king's deer and quaffing of ale (though one wonders where the endless supply of vodka comes from). The living situations are dreadful, and there is always, always danger, to the point that their nerves, and ours, are constantly jangling.

But there are times when Zwick just gives in: when the Jewish partisans are about to leave for their first skirmish, Tuvia heartens them with a speech – “Today we will start rebuilding the lives you have all lost!” – that sounds like every pre-battle speech in the canon, AND he's riding a white horse when he says it, just like Henry V at Agincourt.

But in the main, the film graphically narrates the horrors and the brutality of the time and the situation: Tuvia, having executed the collaborator who murdered his parents, is a sucker for sentimental arguments, and weighs in against indiscriminate killing, which sometimes leaves the camp open to worse danger. As they bury one of their dead, the schoolteacher who acts as their Rabbi prays, “We have run out of blood – choose another people.”

As Tuvia, Daniel Craig gets an opportunity to show much more of his range than the simple rage that the director of “Quantum of Solace” required. Liev Schreiber as Zus provides a stolid partner as well an exasperated antagonist; we catch ourselves remembering that some of the worst misunderstandings are between brothers. And Jamie Bell, as we suspected when he danced around us as Billy Elliott, is turning into an actor of some power.

The film's music score, composed by James Newton Howard, and aided by the violin of Joshua Bell, has been nominated for an Academy Award, but it's not as effective as the nerve-wracking thump of huge guns that we hear almost subliminally, almost constantly, as from a great distance.

Defiance” is a disturbing film, and it deserves to be. It has caused some controversy, especially among Polish historians, some of whom see the Bielskis as terrorists, bandits, or communist collaborators. (No doubt the Normans would have called Robin Hood a communist if they had thought of it.) But in those appalling times the only thing we may ever know for sure is that “your ancestors and our ancestors did terrible things to each other here.” And even if it becomes as remote as Agincourt, or Sherwood, we need to remember it.