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IN SHORT: Unlike any Holocaust Era film you will ever see. [Rated R for violence and language. 137 minutes]
West of the cities of Minsk and Mir and Borisov in the old Czarist Russia was the Jewish Pale of Settlement. Cranky's paternal great-grandfather taught his children: "When you hear horses coming, run for the woods!" That meant Cossacks were coming to kill "the Jews". True, my great-grandfather was "in service to the Czar" -- he moved from city to city building glass foundries and steel mills -- but that service conveyed no protection. He got his kids out of the country, now Belarus, before the Russian Revolution. On the maternal side of the family, there were cousins that remained behind and ran for the woods. This is a story of Cranky's forbears.
Sitting through the true story of Defiance, we could not help thinking about what very little was discussed in the family about the Holocaust. All we knew for years was found in a post war letter from the two cousins that survived, summing up their experience with a brief: "you know what those bastards did." Well, we didn't. Trying to get information from the older generations was like pulling teeth. What we saw in the film Defiance is close enough to what we "pulled" that, whether or not our cousins were part of this story, it was too close for us. To put it in the simplest possible terms, in this true story, the Jews fought back!
When the Nazi army invaded Belarus, here sometime in 1941, they didn't head for the major cities like Minsk -- Jews were not allowed to live in the cities. The Nazi soldiers headed for all the towns around those cities, where Jews did live, and slaughtered every person they could find. Those they couldn't get on the first pass, had a 500 rubles bounty placed on their heads. Formerly "friendly" Russians grabbed up the bounty when they could.
Defiance is a story of Russian Jews who organized and protected their own and fought the Nazis, either as partisans or as part of the Red Army. What is best about this particular telling is that (we) Jews are saved by "James Bond" . . . in this case the eldest of the brothers of the family Belski, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiver) and Asael (Jamie Bell). While Nazi soldiers maniacally slaughter every Jew they can catch between the cross hairs, the brothers Belski are busy collecting money to buy guns; to recompense Russian farmers from whom they steal food -- bad idea -- in short, to remain human even as the world around them shifts ever more towards the barbaric.
The story of Defiance is a true story. Not only do "the Jews" fight back, there is a secondary battle being fought between the brothers Belski as to how loyal they wish to be to the new Soviet power in their mother country. Given the time frame of this film, there is a minor factual discrepancy that we know of only from personal family history. For purposes of this film, it is portrayed as part of a struggle for power, as in "who is in charge" of the Jewish partisans. When that bit of conflict arrives in the overall story, you have hit one of the best moments of the film. As well, there is conflict between the Jews in the forest and those that have tossed their lots in with the newly formed Soviet Army. To keep it simple, the Soviets didn't care much for Jews either, and the film handles that situation deftly.
It's not exactly the way it happened for my family, but it's close enough. As for Defiance the film, whether or not our family were among the fighters or the protected, we don’t know. None of those matters was ever spoken of in a Jewish household. Defiance is a different story. Not only is it a down and dirty tale of survival. It is inspirational. It is a love story. It is filled with action. It has everything that a great story should.
That made it kind of made it hard to do my job as a reviewer. For those outside of the Tribe, Defiance may make a lot of best of lists. For this reviewer, seeking out (our) personal family history as it relates to Defiance ripped open a lot of old scabs. Even with the first generation relatives long in the grave, bits and pieces of repressed knowledge burn just as badly as they did fifty/ sixty years ago. Defiance made a great impact on us, given how close we are to the actual story. It is a good survival story in and of itself but not one which had our audience bouncing in their seats waiting for that great release or ready to cheer any happy outcome. It will be a great rental (the usual $6 rating) but we'll go higher because of the personal connections. There is no way we cannot. At least we're not lying about any of it . . .
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Defiance, he would have paid . . .
Just as a movie, with political and genocidal aspects set aside? Defiance is a damned good sit. Do so.
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