Defiance, with actor Daniel Craig playing the leader of a band of Jewish partisans during the Second World War, was a pretty darn good movie. I went to see it in Times Square the weekend it came out. The film really got the crowd in the theater riled up. Lots of New York City Jews and descendants of Jews were there.
There was an incredible (in the unbelievable sense) comment on the movie in the New York Times. Jacob Heilbrunn writes that recent books have “exploited” the Holocaust and films have “infantalize[d]” it. Clearly it’s true that falsified memoirs do exploit the Holocaust. But I think Heilbrunn is mistaken in what he writes about Defiance:
By choosing Daniel Craig to play the Jewish partisan commander Tuvia Bielski, complete with white horse, Mr. Zwick turns resistance to the Nazis into an action film, an emotionally glorious moment. As rousing as this vision of Jewish combat may be, it does raise a problem identified by the historian Raul Hilberg in his memoir “The Politics of Memory.”
According to Mr. Hilberg, “when relatively isolated or episodic acts of resistance are represented as typical, a basic characteristic of the German measures is obscured … the drastic actuality of a relentless killing of men, women and children is mentally transformed into a more familiar picture of a struggle — however unequal — between combatants.”
There’s plenty of clarity in the film about the brutality of the Nazi regime and the uneveness of the forces. That knowledge is what makes the movie exciting. But there’s a more mistaken notion here. A piece of media doesn’t need to tell us everything that is the case. It’s just responsible for communicating one story. Indeed, no movie could tell the whole story of the Holocaust with justice. To fault one for not doing so is mistaken.
Now let me add a sketchy theoretical postscript. There’s some sort of modern notion at play here: the idea of telling the whole story in one gulp, the idea of the objective unbiased observer (or newspaper, etc.). Indeed, the hope of a complete human understanding of the world without mystery or occlusion. A forgetting that for now “we see through a glass, darkly”.
I’m close to just in time to make this less than a month between posts, however, the topic is an older one, but I wanted to get the newspaper clipping off my desk.