Defiance

A cinematic look at the life of resistance fighters.

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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.

Plotdefiance

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.

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Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

Elliot B. Gertel is the rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago and media critic for The Jewish Post and Opinion of Indianapolis.