Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Defiance - Now Playing at the Senator

Like all war movies that try for a sense of realism, Defiance is rather horrible and grim, but like all stories where defiant heroes stand up against injustice, it is inspiring at the same time.

Based on a true story, Defiance shows us four Jewish brothers in World War II Poland who escape into the forest after members of their family are murdered by the Nazis. There they encounter other Jews in hiding and build a forest village to help themselves and many others survive and remain free.

The refugees, through necessity, grow into a kind of community. They are led, sometimes unwillingly and not always graciously, by the eldest brother Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig). Like all communities, they have their disagreements and their power struggles. They have far more than their share of hardship in order to survive, but share a few joys as well.

Struggling to feed so many, they must raid neighboring farms, always in danger that their raids will be reported to the Nazis. They struggle to find a balance between compassion for the poor farmers within reach of their camp and the danger of leaving witnesses; differing opinions lead to infighting between Tuvia and his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber).

The woodland scenery is often beautiful, sometimes forbidding, but much like the references to the Jewish faith throughout the film, it lends a subtle sense of wonder and the hope that perhaps we are not quite as alone as we often think we are.

The film is rated R for violence, which can hardly be avoided given the circumstances of the story. I dislike films that are excessively violent, and for that reason I hesitated a bit before seeing this film. After reading Director Edward Zwick’s profile on IMDB, I realized that he had also directed Glory (1989), a film about the civil war’s first company of volunteer African American soldiers, which I enjoyed, in spite of its violence, for the theme of struggle for freedom, which Defiance also shares. Some movies require a certain amount of blood to convey the horror of the situation portrayed. Defiance is one of those where the violence is not gratuitous.

Times are hard right now for most Americans, but other humans in other times and places have lived through worse. On the way home from seeing Defiance, I found myself giving thanks for the relative safety of the majority of us. Unlike the men and women in the forest camp, most of us are not besieged, we are not hunted, we are not forced to live in hiding in rudimentary shelters in the cold of an Eastern European winter with very little to eat. For the very poor among us who are on the verge of starving or freezing to death this winter, we need to remember that they are members of our community and need our help.

Movies that portray historical events would be of little value if we could not apply their lessons to our present times. It is timely to recall that the holocaust started because Hitler found a way to use the Jewish people as a scapegoat for the economic distress felt in Germany at that time. Impoverished by the aftermath of World War I and the depression, too many Germans were eager to have someone to blame.

The German people do not have a special monopoly on evil. Their mistake, sadly, is one that we might all be capable of making when hard times and deprivation tempt us to listen to a leader who tells us someone else is causing our problems.

The next time fearmongers try to make us believe we are in mortal danger in order to lead us into another war, we might remember then too that violence is totally unacceptable except in defense of our lives and the lives of others, and even then it is regrettable when an injustice forces our hands to violence. Preemptive violence toward others who have not attacked us, carried out simply because we feel paranoid or deprived of something, is always a sin against humanity.

In the Baltimore area, Defiance is now playing at The Senator Theatre, the historic Art Deco movie palace, which is currently in need of the community’s help to remain a treasured resource for Baltimore. Strong attendance this week would surely help buy more time for the Senator as it makes the desired transition to community-owned nonprofit. Defiance is well worth seeing, and there’s no better place in the Baltimore area to see it.


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