New films like Inglourious Basterds, Waltz With Bashir and Defiance change the face of Jewish film.
David Rittberg, the grandson of a woman who actually lived and fought with the Bielskis, suggested to me that the message of movies like Inglourious Basterds and Defiance--and the reason they may be so appealing to American Jews--is because they recast Jews as heroes, rather than victims: "For me," he said, "the message [of Defiance] was that the Jews didn't sit down and die. They fought and they fought to save each other more than they fought to kill Nazis. That's what I learned from my grandparents." For American Jews, who carry a sense of our own victimhood like Israelis carry their power (uneasily, obsessively, and neurotically), the image of Israeli warriors is seductive, almost comforting.
But for Israelis, particularly those who accompanied me to Defiance, the story of Jewish heroics is overly, if not painfully, familiar, and comes at a cost. In the pivotal and most disturbing scene in the film (which, according to Rittberg's grandmother, actually happened) when partisans lynch a Nazi, one of my Israeli friends covered her eyes. On the screen, Daniel Craig averted his.
It was an unbearable and terribly uncomfortable moment to watch, suggesting as it did that even during the Holocaust there was moral ambiguity. The line between victim and aggressor is--even in the times when the line between good and evil seems stark--blurry and shifting.
The only problem is that Defiance isn't unbearable enough. It, like Life is Beautiful, makes the Holocaust palatable for an Oprah-fied America. In Defiance, we are left with a reasonably happy ending, given the possibilities. In Waltz with Bashir, the ending is shameful at best, absolutely wrenching at worst. Leaving Defiance, you need a moment or two to gather yourself, leaving the theater after Waltz with Bashir, language is altogether useless. The friend I went with to Bashir (the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor) was on the edge of tears for 20 minutes after the credits rolled. In contrast, Defiance, while moving, is at times too easy to watch. It's not unbearable enough. It makes being a partisan seem, at times, like something in a Kevin Costner film: redemptive, self-edifying, and occasionally, lots of fun. In reality of course, it was a terrible existence. "Based on everything my grandparents told me," Rittberg said to me, "it was absolutely unbearable."
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