Recommended Viewing: Defiance
Noble Effort Plays Fast and Loose with History
There is no limit to my interest in films about World War II, so I am not sure how an interesting movie like Defiance did not catch my attention until eight years after it was made. The film succeeds on many levels in its effort to dispel the notion that all the murdered Jews of Europe went to their deaths without a fight. By dramatizing the true story of the four Bielski brothers and the formation of their community of partisans, Defiance pays tribute at last to this successful effort that saved 1,236 men, women, and children from the Nazi death camps and sent a significant number of their persecutors to
their own deaths.
For me, the problem with this movie is its handling of history, namely the complete omission of Poland from the narrative. You can almost hear director Edward Zwick trying to untangle the complicated net of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and political loyalties that ripped Poland to shreds as Germany and Russia plotted to divide the nation and exterminate any people who did not fit into their plan for world domination. Zwick’s solution? Leave Poland out of the film entirely. The problem with this simplified rendition of history is that it is simply wrong. The Bielski family were Polish Jews. The community the real brothers built in the forests was in the vicinity of Nowogródek in a part of Eastern Poland that was annexed by the Soviet Union and made part of Belarus after the war.
Of course, this is not a documentary film, any more than Shakespeare’s history plays are documentaries. Defiance is based on a true story, but it is a fictionalized account, featuring outstanding performances by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber. Not a word of Polish is spoken by anyone in the film, which features dialogue in English, Russian, and German.
For historical accounts, better to read two recent English-language books about the Bielski partisans: Defiance (1993, credited as the basis for the film) by Nechama Tec and The Bielski Brothers (2004) by Peter Duffy. A book (2009) in Polish by two reporters from Gazeta Wyborcza, Odwet: Prawdziwa historia braci Bielskich (Revenge: The True Story of the Bielski Brothers) focuses on the political and historical context in which the partisans operated, specifically the fighting between Polish and Soviet resistance groups in the Kresy (former Eastern Poland) region. An excellent summary of the critical response to the film can be found in Wikipedia.