Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Defiance was a movie we got from the Lancaster Public Library and I expected it to be a “shoot-‘em-up.” What I found was a film with deep meaning. movie directed by Edward Zwick and starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber. The movie is based on the true story of the Bielski brothers who fought the Nazis in World War II on the Belarusian front. There are four Bielski brothers, Tuvia the oldest, Zus the husky fighter, Asael the sensitive one, and Aron the youngest.

The initial scenes show displacement, death, and chaos. Asael finds Zus in the woods and they head to their home only to find all of their family dead save for Aron. Zus grabs the mezuzah. When they find Tuvia in the woods later, Zus gives the mezuzah to Tuvia to acknowledge his leadership as well as to show the birthright. My friend and Jewish scholar, Yael, interprets this scene as “When a Jew moves from the house they remove their mezuzah from their doorways unless the next occupant is also Jewish. I saw the act of giving this mezuzah to the oldest brother as an affirmation of the family's survival. One day it would again be hung on the doorpost of his home, even if right now he has no home” (Lange).

The opening scene calls to mind the Diaspora Jews; the Jews of the Exodus, the Exile, and the various occupations. Like in the Bible, the setting is a character and must be considered and fought with every step of the way. The scarcity and menace of the forest is shown and felt in the characters. There are many shots of figures moving through the forest and very few shots of civilization. They are outgunned, out-numbered, and they are living in a forest with people used to the city life. When Tuvia meets Isaac Malbin, he askes what Isaac does. He states that he’s an intellectual that publishes a socialist pamphlet. Tuvia is surprised “That is a job?”

There are all sorts of problems here! Namely how do we live as community in a hostile world with shortages of food, resources, and with ppl you can't get along with... one of those being your fiesty brother.

The resolution to all of these problems is to form a resistant community removed from the rest of the world. There is a rejection of laying down and dying and “waiting for God.” In a sense, there is a rejection of traditional religion in the movie. “All too often traditional religion wants to take us back to ‘what was’ rather than help to root us in ‘what is’” (Taylor 122). Tuvia stated that the “best revenge is to live” and to live as humans with dignity.

There is however, a look back to traditional religion and ancestors to get the core identity of the group. Asael says, when training women how to shoot rifles, “this is not a gun, this is Bar Kochba’s spear. Samson’s jawbone. Elhud’s sword. The slingshot David used to bring down Goliath. We will become warriors like the Maccabees and the Tsiccerai.” This recalls the history of Jews being underdogs who resisted the invading power. The salvation comes from within the group, it is traded among the individuals of the group, one picking up the other when they fall. This is tested at every turn and there are exceptions to the law that Tuvia laid out.
A woman was raped by a German soldier and has a baby. Tuvia is at a crossroads because pregnancies are forbidden and he is considering shooting the mother and child. Lilka, Tuvia’s love interest, saves him and his humanity in this moment stating that the best thing to do is to bring life into the world of suffering and death; letting the child and mother live would be the ultimate act of defiance. Tuvia breaks down and cries here as he realizes that he loves Lilka. He finds love despite himself and affirms it. This is saving for Tuvia but there are two other times where others save him.

The Germans bomb the camp set up by Tuvia and his group and they are forced to flee from the invading infantry. They run through the forest but reach a wetland. Tuvia sits at the river bank and weeps. This calls to mind Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept...” Tuvia has completely given up and mourns. Asael saves him saying, “God will not part these waters, we will do it ourselves and not by miracles but together, through our strength. Strong will help the weak.” Asael provides the vision that is counter to what the world is doing, namely the strong killing the weak, the many oppressing the few. In this community, the lion lays down with the lamb.

The community reaches the other side only to be attacked by a panzer. Zus comes in and saves the community he has been running away from. He had overheard that the Russians were going to let the Germans kill Tuvia’s group. They were using the community as cover as the Red Army escaped and set up camp elsewhere. Zus realized that he was not fighting for the same things as his fellow soldiers were. This realization called him back to his true community.

What does this movie say about God?

God is mentioned frequently here. The movie revolves around questions of Theodicy.
First, there is a hope of a messiah, as evidenced by the conversation between the teacher and the intellectual, Isaac Malbin:
Teacher: “All I know about politics is that there is a monster in the East with the big mustache and the monster in the West with the little mustache; this is all I need to know about politics.”
Isaac: “Your messiah will have a mustache too… and a full beard!”
Teacher: “The messiahs are all in politics and they are killing us.”
Zus: “What is killing me is all your talking!”
Isaac: “Roosevelt! He has no mustache!”

There is still a hope in a savior in the line of thought of Isaac. Isaac represents the tradition in Judaism that believed that God determined the time of the Messiah's coming by erecting a great set of scales. On one side, God placed the captive Messiah with the souls of dead laymen. On the other side, God placed sorrow, tears, and the souls of righteous martyrs. God then declared that the Messiah would appear on earth when the scale was balanced. According to this tradition, then, evil is necessary in the bringing of the world's redemption, as sufferings reside on the scale. This is a big feature in post-Holocaust theology (Braiterman 55,62). The teacher, on the other hand doesn’t believe in this tradition.

The teacher prays “Merciful God, we commit our friends - Ben Zion and Krensky - to You. We have no more prayers, no more tears; we have run out of blood. Choose another people. We have paid for each of your commandments; we have covered every stone and field with ashes. Sanctify another land. Choose another people. Teach them the deeds and the prophesies. Grant us but one more blessing: take back the gift of our holiness. Amen.” He would give up being “God’s chosen” because this has only brought oppression and death to his people. When the teacher is first introduced he states that he viewed this as a trial, “as God’s way… it isn’t. Recent events have somewhat shaken my resolve.” He represents the view of agnosticism. The teacher doesn’t fully present these thoughts, but lets them hang as to emphasize his doubt and his inability to make sense of the violence and slaughter around him. By the end of the film, he says to Tuvia in his dying words that “I had almost lost faith. But you were sent by God to save us.” Tuvia states that this is ridiculous but the teacher states “Just in case, I thank God and you. You are an angel.” This represents the tradition in Judaism that angels can be mortal and are “messengers” from God. This view is closer to an Open theism as found in the writings of Harold Kushner. This position that argues, as does Process Theology, that God prefers to persuade rather coerce, and/or that omnipotence has been willingly relinquished so that humanity might have absolute free will. For example, the scientist-theologian

John Polkinghorne suggests that, in addition to free will, God has created the universe in such a way that it is, to a significant extent, allowed to make itself, and that such a world "is better than the puppet theatre of a Cosmic Tyrant” (Polkinghorne 14).

For many, the Holocaust is evidence that there is no God and that life is unfair and the world is chaos. “Others see the same unfairness and ask themselves ‘Where do I get this sense of what is fair and what is unfair?” (Kushner 142). Tuvia and his brothers really don’t ask questions of God’s existence. They were on the margins in the community anyway, but their rebellious lifestyle gave them the tools to survive and lead in the new context. Some would call this providence. Process theologians would praise Tuvia and his brothers for listening to God’s urges and being self-aware enough to put what they have learned into practice in service of others.

Asael is the one Bielski brother that seems aware of his theology. It is one of community and one that does not ask for God to do the impossible or unnatural, nor does he operate out of a sense of revenge as Zus does. Asael is the theological voice of the movie. His view reflects that of the prayer “Likrat Shabbat” by Jack Riemer:

“We cannot merely pray to you O God to end war;
For the World is made in such a way
That we must find our own path of peace
Within ourselves and with our neighbors.
We cannot merely pray to you O God to root out Prejudice:
for we already have eyes
With which to see the good in all people
If we would only use them rightly.
We cannot merely pray to you O God to end starvation:
For we already have the resources
With which to feed the entire World
If we would only use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to you O God to end despair:
For we already have the power To clear away slums and to give hope
If we would only use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to you O God to end disease:
For we already have great minds
With which to search out cures and healings
If we would only use them constructively.
Therefore we pray instead
For strength, determination, and will power,
To do instead of merely to pray
To become instead of merely to wish:
So that our World may be safe,
And so that our lives may be blessed” (Kushner 118).

great film with a ton in it! WATCH IT! here's another great line:

Koscik: “Why is it so fucking hard to be friends with a Jew?”
Tuvia: “Try being one.”

wonderful! and thanks to Yael for help here!


Yael said...

You're welcome, Luke. Enjoyed your analysis of the movie. Have to clarify one thing though, I make no claims to being a Jewish scholar, but thanks for the compliment.

You mentioned the people standing by the water and one person urging them to go on. Likely you don't know the midrash this alludes to, but when I watched this movie I saw it immediately.

A Midrash relates that during the Exodus, when the Israelites reached the Red Sea, it did not automatically part. The Israelites stood at the banks of the sea and wailed with despair, but Nahshon entered the waters. Once he was up to his nose in the water, the sea parted.

Man,you're bad. Here I was supposed to be doing some research for shul (on my day off and at home) and instead I'm reading your blog and thinking about this movie. Maybe I could tie it in to my research.....

Tit for Tat said...

Damn, all that happened in the movie. I think I need to pay more attention to some things. ;)

Excellent movie, and I loved the quote from it too.

Anglican Gurl said...


This movie has been added to our Netflix. THANKS!

Yael, you need to learn to take a compliment! Luke does not fancy himself an intellectual and you don't think you are a scholar... whatever!!! HaHa!

Yael said...

Anglican Gurl,
That is a great prayer, isn't it? No shirking responsibility allowed!

Enjoy the movie. I'm going to watch it again with my kids.

abby said...

This was a very pretty film in high-definition, probably because most of the shots were in beautiful forests. The colors and the details on all the trees was astounding. The quotes of this movie are fantastic, i liked them.. So if you are looking for this video then download defiance movie. Just Enjoy !!