Monday, April 04, 2011

Film Notes: Defiance

Usually when a film gets bad reviews it's pretty obvious why that is the case. Rotten Tomatoes compiles the average scores of many critics to even out the effects of the odd quirky review - and their summary of reviews gives Defiance a pretty poor showing. Sometimes after watching a film I jot down my impressions before heading across to that site to compare their scores with my own impressions - and very often there is a reasonable correlation.I was surprised however at the level of negative response to the 2008 film Defiance. While it wasn't the greatest film ever made, and wasn't going to win many Oscar nominations for its acting - it was a great story, well-told, well-made and one I found engaged me sufficiently to care about the fate of the characters. The opening credits of the film made it clear that this was based on a true story, and that the main protagonists were genuine historical figures. The film succeeded in telling their story with enough pathos to make me anxious to see if the final credits revealed any more about them and their eventual fate. I won't spoil the film by saying what that was, just that the end-credits were fascinating, informative and moving.

The film itself is a dramatic reconstruction of one of the most remarkable escapades of the Second World War. While the Nazi's expanded their Empire Eastwards, they took their pogroms, and death camps with them - clearing vast areas of Poland and Belarus of their Jewish populations. The film tells the story of a group of Jews, led by brothers, Tuvia and Zus Bielski who hid amongst the vast forest of Eastern Europe, operating as partisans (sometimes in conjunction with the Russians), and running a secret community of over a thousand hiding Jews. The film explores the way they hid, fought, planned and worked, and tried to survive the numerous threats they faced from Nazis, collaborators, disease, starvation and deep Winters.

To be sure, as numerous critics have observed, this is a work of fiction based on a historical-outline; that blurred genre where fact and fiction collide known as faction. It does contain inaccuracies, which would not be acceptable in a documentary. Yet despite this, it helpfully recalls a poignant part of twentieth century history. While many people are aware of the ghastly 'final solution'; of the liquidation of the ghettoes, of Aushwitz, and the scale of atrocities of the holocaust - there are other important stories hidden amongst that history that deserve a telling. It was Hugo Gryn who once wrote that in the death camps, he never questioned where God had gone - but he often questioned where mankind had gone. Stories like this, of human resiliance, strength, courage and of course, defiance, point to the answer to that question.

Critics have panned some of the acting, some of the directing, and a claimed lack of emotional impact of the film, selling the history short. While some of their comments might have some substance to them, I appreciated this film very much indeed. In fact I felt slightly ashamed that in all the stories of WWII which were commonplace in my younger days (I was born about 25 years after the war), The Great Escape, The Dambusters, The D-Day Landings, The Cockleshell Heroes, El Alamein, The Battle of Britain and the Few; I had never heard of a community of 1500 Jews who defied the holocaust by the most daring and exciting means. Defiance corrected that error - and did so with a great deal more passion, commitment and success than the critics gave it credit for.

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