Thursday, January 08, 2009


Defiance, Edward Zwick. [D] january 2nd, 2008.

So at first I wrote Defiance off because I've got the same kneejerk exasperation with Holocaust films as most everyone else, but then I got wind of the premise - Jewish guerillas fighting Nazis in the forest - and I thought maybe it might be interesting. Then the New York Times gave Edward Zwick a whole page to outline his motivations for making the film (which they, haha, ran opposite a full page ad for it) and I thought, "well maybe I'll give it a shot," even though statements such as "when my childhood friend Clay Frohman suggested we make a Holocaust-theme film based on Nechama Tec’s book 'Defiance,' I groaned, 'Not another movie about victims.'" already suggested to me that maybe this guy wasn't the guy to talk about this stuff. The weird underlying tone of resentment and shame that pops up here and there throughout that essay manifests itself in the film as well, culminating in perhaps its most embarrassing form when Daniel Craig, atop a white horse, delivers a rousing speech™ to the community he's helped build in the forest and a small child turns to his father and asks incredulously "That's a Jew?" Ai yi yi.

The problem with a lot of Holocaust films isn't that they're about the Holocaust, but that they're about the Holocaust, as in solely. There are many stories left to tell, many perspectives to be offered, but most of these films seem to be more interested in simply saying "these things happened" in the same tone of voice that a stranger at a funeral tells you they're sorry for your loss: with a certain amount of weighted pride, cause they know they're doing a Good Thing. Every filmmaker that approaches this subject says that this movie was very important to them to make, but very rarely is that reflected in the films themselves. Perhaps it's fearfulness that keeps that from happening, no one wants to be accused of insensitivity and so "now is not the time for indulgence," but in creating a sort of template for how these films are to work, which is almost never strayed from, the Holocaust has been turned into a genre and distanced respectfulness gives way to callousness.

On top of that, there's the silly fake Russian accents, the empty archetypal characters, the abbreviated plot development. Why does Liev Schreiber's character fall in love with a particular woman? Because upon her introduction the camera cuts to a close-up of his face and some music plays and it cuts to her face and some music plays. She only has three scenes, what do you expect? The other two brothers get to hook up, too. Why is there a running gag about how incompetent the man who stands guard for the camp is? Daniel Craig's character beats the shit out of his brother for insolence, kills another man for not obeying his orders, but the guy in charge of the safety of the camp is an idiot because the movie needed comic relief? This guy's not even trying, is he? It's definitely a cool story, and so there's merit in this film to that extent, but it just makes me wish I'd read the book instead. I also got excited during their first attack when they just ambush and kill the shit out of a bunch of Nazis on a road. It was kinda brutal and heavy and I was jazzed about the prospect of this just being almost a B-movie, Jews massacring Nazis cathartic fuck you kind of thing, but I guess we're gonna have to wait for Inglourious Basterds to get that.

Here's a link to a related article, written about the current crop of Holocaust films:

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