FILM FEBRUARY 18, 2009
Of Time and the City
EDWARD ZWICK’S FILM Defiance is based on Nechama Tec’s book of the same title. Tec told a wondrous factual story of World War II, a history so close to incredible that it is awesome. In Belarus in 1941, two young Jewish brothers named Bielski organized a life-saving mission for Jews that, after much hazard and suffering, rescued twelve hundred lives from the Holocaust. The principal means of salvation was the immense forests of the region. The Bielskis hid a community of Jews in those forests, defending them when necessary but mostly moving them, with school and hospital and supplies, from place to place for three years. It is an account of courage, born of desperation yet nonetheless magnificent.
This was an apt subject for Zwick. He has long shown an affinity for the epic—sagas of heroes that have historical import. The results have varied in quality. Blood Diamond, addressing the interplay of commerce and oppression in Sierra Leone, and The Last Samurai, depicting the end of an era in Japan, had problems; Glory, about a black regiment in the Union Army during the Civil War, was soul-shaking. In any case, it would seem that Zwick was ready to be overwhelmed by Tec’s book. In the foreword that he wrote for its new paperbound edition, he says, “To read of the Bielski brothers and their fight to create a safe haven evokes in me something utterly primitive and deeply personal,” and added, “Those of us who make films are forever searching for heroes.” Here he found some.
The Bielski brothers were rough and ready types who (Tec writes) “belonged to the small minority of Jews who from the very beginning refused to become ghetto inmates. To elude the enemy they were constantly on the move.” They saw that the Germans were murdering Jews almost methodically, and they knew that outright confrontation would be futile. The Bielskis also knew the Belorussian forests and that they could hide people there. They began to recruit people for their community—at one point they even raided a small ghetto and took the occupants along. Soon they had something like a shtetl in those deep woods, a mobile shtetl that could shift evasively when needed.
It is a story for which the term “gripping” is weak. But for film-makers it brought a burden. Zwick’s screenplay virtually announces that he and Clayton Frohman, his co-writer, soon found that their love for the book had a steep cinematic price. The story is utterly absorbing, but it is not intrinsically dramatic. Zwick himself says it is the account of a “safe haven.” Tec writes of Tuvia Bielski, the leader of the enterprise, “Refusing to become a victim, rejecting the role of avenger, Tuvia Bielski concentrated on gathering Jewish fugitives and protecting their lives.” Tuvia himself said years later: “[The Germans] took anyone and killed them.... I wanted to save, not to kill.”
Fighting and killing were inevitable along the way, but they were always, in an organic sense, peripheral. The center was this forest community of Jews, who were not a corps of resistance fighters: they were families hiding. Some of the men certainly helped in defense when the Germans attacked, but the story is more spiritually courageous than aggressive. These were people in flight, not in campaigns.
Zwick’s film shows that he recognized this difference early on. He foresaw that, to give the story filmic vitality, he had to endow it with more action. He was aware, as he says, that “movies are ... reductionist” against complicated sources, yet apparently he also knew that he had taken on two jobs, not one. He had to preserve this story that he revered, yet he had to do it in a film that was not merely a static account of people who were hiding.
Every chance for action was then wrung dry. The Germans harass the Jewish group as much as they can, but in the film the battle scenes with Germans are much expanded from the book. The Bielski raids on peasants for food are extended. When a wolf attacks a girl who carries food, Zwick makes the feral most of it to liven the screen. When a German soldier is captured by the Jews, Zwick turns the community into a manic chorus. Tuvia and Zus blaze one day into a fistfight, and when the moment comes that Tuvia picks up a stone to brain his brother, he stops—as we know he will—just in time. (Zus leaves to join some Soviet partisans nearby, but ultimately returns.) Tuvia has an amour with a girl in the group, and, to dress the film, Zwick chooses a conventionally pretty one, then photographs her flatteringly. And the one scene in which she and her lover are seen in bed is bathed in a golden glow that seems catchpenny. Throughout, Zwick surrounds his unique central story with more familiar movie-action material.
Then there are the Bielski brothers themselves. Zwick felt that he had to purify Tuvia and Zus. (There are two younger brothers, but they are minor in the story.) Zwick himself has said, in a publicity piece, that Tuvia and Zus were “raised wild in the woods ... casually violent, sexually predacious at times murderous.” He cleans them up considerably for wide popular acceptance. Thus he reduces the fascinating contrast between their true characters and the ennobling work that they did. We might understand that a film’s limits in time and breadth enforced the simplification; still, this purging seems part of an acceptance mode.
The center of the picture is quite another matter. Paradoxically, Defiance is at its best when it is not trying to be a smash film—when it is not, in a kinetic sense, cinematic. The creation of that Jewish community and the commitment of its members are enthralling. Some of this effect comes from a series of small authentic performances. Some of it comes from the places where it all happens. (The exteriors were shot in a Lithuanian forest near the actual places.) Eduardo Serra, the cinematographer, who worked with Zwick on Blood Diamond (and who copied Vermeer’s palette inGirl With a Pearl Earring), has transmuted that forest into a series of immense verdant caverns. He makes us understand why, through literature and folklore, forests have seemed magical. When snow comes, as it does in the film’s time span, it seems no more than magical winter furnishings.
The community is compassionately, even humorously, portrayed. Jewish characteristics are ticked off almost like a checklist—chess, violin, Talmud. Although it may be hard to imagine an intellectual who actually says, “I haven’t read a book in months,” it is wry to hear the man say it. A wedding in the open air, traditional except that a light snow accompanies the rabbi, seems by the time it occurs quite in order for this accommodated group.
Zwick’s two principal actors would have had a harder time if the characters had been the original Bielskis. But Zus, as given here, is well within the grasp of Liev Schreiber, who has ample volatility on tap as well as vulnerability. Tuvia is Daniel Craig, who proved himself an authenticating actor long before he encountered James Bond. He has depths that he likes to keep secret, which is oddly appealing in an actor. Here he could have used one gram more of command, but he never falters. His performance has comprehension and confidence.
So, at the last, Defiance stands strong because its cinematically difficult center is strong. It is hardly news that good subjects do not necessarily make good films; but good subjects, feelingly handled, can certainly concentrate a maneuvering film. When we finally see the long file of Jews making their way out of the forest across an open field toward freedom—an open field after many months of concealment—and we remember what they have endured, we are suffused with a sense of triumph. The trappings of the framework are well outweighed by this moment of exultation. Not often can we leave a film quite aware of its shortcomings yet grateful that it exists.
CITIES EVOKE FILMS. It’s not just that cities have lent atmosphere and zest to innumerable fiction films: documentaries about cities flourish. Poets and authors and painters have long dealt with cities as subjects, and when it came along, film joined in. New York, London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Moscow are only some of the world capitals that have been celebrated on the screen—not only in plodding travelogues but in perceptive films. The view can be large (Guttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City in 1927) or it can focus on one aspect (Antonioni’s Nettezza Urbana in 1948—a short about the Sanitation Department in Rome.)
And the city need not be a fabled world capital. Guy Maddin proved that again recently with My Winnipeg. Terence Davies does it yet again with Of Time and the City, which is about Liverpool. It is his native city, and he has treated it sensitively in some earlier autobiographical films. Here he simply wants to indite an ode to it—not to its beauties (even Davies can’t find many), but to its verve, its rhythms, its history, its right to be on earth.
He himself does the narration, mellifluous in voice and laden with poetic quotations that sometimes seem more appropriate to his feelings than to what we are looking at. Also he brings in great swatches of huge music—symphonic with chorus—to imply, I suppose, that even in these gray streets complicated lives persist. He takes us to municipal halls, tugboats, commuter rushes, markets, jobs. He sketches some modern history from a royal procession through (of course) the Beatles to the present.
The marvel of it all is that it is interesting. Partly this is because Davies, a deft film-maker, cherishes every alley and conveys his affection despite the occasional grandeur of his voice-over. Partly it is because it is hard to fail with a film of this sort if it is adequately made. Documentaries about people going about their lives, no matter what they are doing, tend to hold us, especially if confined to short clips of shops and ferries and mothers with their babies. Such films afford a double pleasure. With specifics of place and custom, they enlighten; and, in Western cities, anyway, they assert universals. In a subtle, almost sinuous way, they confirm that those people in far-off cities, huffing and laughing and gabbing and just hurrying to work, are distant cousins. As others have done with other cities, Davies makes us all a bit Liverpudlian.
Stanley Kauffmann is film editor of The New Republic.
This article appeared in the February 18, 2009 issue of the magazine.