Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Defiance -- combat or community

Director: Edward Zwick, 2008.

Edward Zwick has directed a number of movies about war. But most of them look at war from a minority perspective, or at different forms of war. One of his earliest films, Glory, centered on the first all-black volunteers during the American Civil War. In the 90s, the Gulf War took center stage in Courage Under Fire. In 2003 he focused on the Japan imperialst wars in The Last Samurai. Here, he turns his attention on World War 2, but through the eyes of Polish Jews and partisans.

Defiance is the true story of the three Bielski brothers: Tuvia (Daniel Craig, the newest James Bond: Casino Royale), Zus (Liev Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate), and Asael (Jamie Bell). Smugglers before the war, they are schooled in survival, knowing the woods of their native Poland and Belorussia. They are impervious to the war until the war touches them . . . in a personal way.

The movie opens with actual newsreel footage. The Germans are committing atrocities against the Polish Jews from the rural villages. As we see children separated from parents, old men being callously shot by Nazis, the black and white morphs into color and we are into the film. A striking introduction, it propels us emotionally into the story.

This introduction finds the Bielski family touched by tragedy. When Zus returns home from the forest with another brother, he finds the village empty, massacred. Their father and uncles lie dead, ruthlessly killed. Asael survived by hiding, but now the three brothers take to the forest, where they are joined by Tuvia. Their plan is to survive alone, a small band of brothers, living for themselves. That plan comes into question when they find other Jews, old and weak, frail and female, unfamiliar with surviving in the forests. Tuvia, the oldest brother and clear leader, accepts them into his group, even though he has little food or medicine.

As the group grows, Tuvia and Zus have different ideas on how to defy the Germans and gain freedom. Zus wants to join the Russian partisan soldiers, also hiding in the forest, and fight the invaders. But Tuvia wants to continue to foster an open and welcoming community. These two leaders come head to head to literally fight over the leadership and future of this motley crew. Which is better? Defiance by fighting for freedom? Or defiance by living in freedom? These two provide the extremes of the options explored in Defiance.

One problem highlighted in Defiance is that of savage retaliation. This is graphically depicted in two troubling scenes. The first appears early in the film when Tuvia takes justice into his own hands, and goes on a mission to execute the man who led the Germans to his village. Ruthlessly in cold-blood he kills the man in his home during dinner with his family. We can understand his motivation, but is it morally justified? Not only is he taking the law into his own hands, not leaving vengeance and justice to the one who stands above all, the Lord God of Israel (Deut. 32:35), but he is also putting his own little community at risk of Nazi retaliation or worse, his own death. Is it ever right to let emotions over-run self-control and vent our "righteous anger" on our enemies? Jesus said we should love our enemies and pray for them (Matt. 5:44). Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Sophie Scholl, perhaps we are called to passive opposition or civil disobedience.

The second scene is even more brutal. Tuvia has made it clear: "We are not thieves. Or murderers. We may be hunted like animals but we will not become animals." He is firm on his commitment to avoid becoming like the very people who are hunting him: savage brutes. Yet, when his community capture a German soldier on the eve of a German attack, he is unsure what to do with him. Lacking a decision, the rabble of angry refugees resorts to mob rule. They surround the poor man and savagely beat him to death. They have become like those they are running from, even if for a brief moment.

Tuvia understands clearly the need to retain our humanity, even in the face of depravity and desperation. Taking revenge, wreaking brutal punishment on another person who may not have personally harmed you, is morally and ethically wrong. Yet, to the mob, it felt so good. It gave them an opportunity to experience blood-lust, to pour out the pent-up frustration of never being able to give back. Always running, they were able to stand and fight. But what kind of fight is killing a defenceless man! It is an unfair and immoral fight. As Tuvia turns away, seeking to retain his humanity, the crowd of followers become a pack of baying hounds with blood in their nostrils.

If Tuvia is having his problems keeping his community under control, Zus has his own problems. When he leaves with some of the fighting men to join the Russians, he finds a form of anti-semitism amongst his new "allies." The Soviets are willing to accept them as cannon fodder but still treat them as inferior due to their religious views.

So, is it better to "fight" for freedom by living, and perhaps dying in actual freedom, enjoying what community there is among like-minded people, or to literally fight with those who look down on you? The other alternative is to give in and "live" with badges on the lapels behind the gates of the ghetto, never knowing when the enemy will ship you out to the labor/death camps. Zwick makes the answer clear when Zus rejoins Tuvia.

The key is to retain humanity and dignity, even faith. When things look dire, food is forgotten, snow is all-around, the faith of the community flickers and is all but extinguished. One prayer sums it up:
Merciful God, we commit our friends - Ben Zion and Krensky - to You. We have no more prayers, no more tears; we have run out of blood. Choose another people. We have paid for each of Your commandments; we have covered every stone and field with ashes. Sanctify another land. Choose another people. Teach them the deeds
and the prophesies. Grant us but one more blessing: take back the gift of our holiness. Amen.
It is easy to understand how their faith is eroded little by little until none is left except that crumb asking for freedom from God. But that is no freedom. The freedom that begins with an act of defiance against the Germans is a freedom that holds firm to faith. Even the flicker is enough. Faith is what is needed when all else is dark. Together with his brother, Tuvia provides faith enough for the community. His faith enables the others to begin to believe again in the God of Abraham. He delivered his people from the Egyptians. He will deliver the Polish Jews from the Germans. Not all made it, but through the efforts of the Bielski brothers, more than 1200 Jews survived for almost three years in the forests and ultimately lived to see V-day.

Although faith is a personal matter, as evangelicals like to affirm, there is a place for community faith. The faith that Jesus calls us to is a faith that places us in community, the congregation of the saints that gather together regularly (Heb. 10:25). We encourage and enable those around us in our community with our faith. When we struggle, we can look to them and take courage and heart from their faith. Tuvia is an example of how the faith of one man can ignite the faith of the community. Whether we are the one or the one in the crowd, we can be encouraged that faith is not just a separated and separating issue. No, faith is to be lived out in community where we can help one another to get through the hard times.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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