How does one survive when all hell breaks loose, when you’re outmanned and outgunned, running and hiding for your life? Edward Zwick’s movie Defiance gives us a glimpse of how this is accomplished.
Defiance is the story of four Jewish brothers who escape Nazi-occupied Poland in 1941 after the death of their parents at the hands of the Nazis, into the Belarusian forest. The movie is based on the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec, depicting the story of the Bielski brothers who fought the Nazis and rescued hundreds of Jews throughout the horrible madness of the war and genocide of the Holocaust.
For me, the moment in the movie that sets the premise of the film came when a Russian officer, upon meeting the main character Tuvia and his younger brother Zus, makes the remark that “Jews don’t fight.” The immediate response is “These Jews do.” And that, in essence, is the theme of the movie—the fight to live, the struggle to survive, the things that one must do in war and in the midst of evil oppression so great that one’s life is at stake.
While the movie is a dramatic representation of the real-world events that the Bielski partisans endured, it is also, as the New York Times review stated, a movie of arguments between Tuvia and his angry, emotional brother, Zus. The arguments run the gamut of “…justice, righteousness, and how a decent society should function. (New York Times, 12/31/2008).” It is the argument and questions those times of war always brings to the forefront—to what point do we allow our survival instinct to rule over those other elements of our humanity that truly sets us apart from other species, those notions of compassion, respect for life, and protecting those weaker than ourselves? How do we remove the glasses of savagery that is inherent with war to see the value in each suffering victim? And at what point do we curtail our societal instinct for compassion so that the majority can survive?
This film does not attempt to paint the Bielski’s as supreme heroes. They have very definitive flaws and weaknesses. This film portrays these men with the capability of good and bad, those elements all mankind contains—flawed with the hint of the heroic, growing and learning. But the community that eventually evolves with this group of survivors is a very real picture we need to see today in our isolated, distant society. We have become so insular that very often we don’t even know the neighbors next door to us. It’s this isolation that feeds our fears and hopelessness as events continue to spin out of control, because we feel we’re in this struggle by ourselves. Sure we have the Internet and the ability to speak with other like-minded people from across the world in a matter of seconds. But when all the trappings of civilization are gone, it’s those associations that we make within our own neighborhoods and communities that will matter the most.
Sometimes it seems that in this crazy, chaotic world in which we live, those of us with real-world common sense and the ability to see reality without resorting to esoteric delusions of utopian societies are the ones on the defensive. Government interference and regulation is on a scope never before seen in our country, and those of us with “eyes to see” can make out the handwriting on the wall. Those with even a rudimentary knowledge of history will recognize the foreshadowing that is occurring in our world. Movies like Defiance show us that the human spirit can be squashed, can even be extinguished to an extent, but it can never be completely rendered into submission.
Like the Bielskis, there will always be those whose instinct is to fight, to lead, and to encourage others. Whether we join those forces of opposition or simply choose to lay down our inherent rights in submission to tyrants and dictators is a choice that each and every one of us may have to make in a not-to-distant future.
Defiance shows us that even when the odds seem insurmountable, even when we are broken and on our last leg, there is a reservoir of strength that each of us can contribute to encourage others to rise to the challenge again and again.
And this strength is ours as long as we have community with one another.