Defying Defiance

24 01 2009


Liev Schreiber (l.) is alternately sparky and taciturn, a bearish grumbler.  Daniel Craig (r.) is alternately catatonic and taciturn, a grizzled moper.  They are brothers, who, along with their younger siblings (Jamie Bell and George MacKay) lead a band of courageous but tortured Jews from various town in the Byelorus into safety in the forests in the early days of the 1940s.  This film intends to be revealing and fresh in its take on the Nazi problem, but in the hands of the formula-addicted Edward Zwick the film quickly becomes a steaming soup cauldron containing bits of Exodus, Fahrenheit 451, The Diary of Anne Frank, Fiddler on the Roof, and, of course, Schindler’s List, not to mention Saving Private Ryan and countless other anodyne recapitulations of the gray-suited Nazi troupe motoring through history and mowing down anyone touching, friendly, and civilized in their path.

It is especially disarming to see scenes cut short, in the manner of a television series, and an almost total lack of tension between characters among the forestial Jews.  One dissenter is clearly a roughian and a slob and he’s quickly shot by the leader (Craig) when he tries to mutiny.  (No conflict permitted here that might obfuscate the greater opposition between unfeeling Nazi pigs and Jewish victims.)  And even more troubling, even angering, is James Newton Howard’s rip-off of John Williams’s rip-off of Sheldon Harnick’s violin motif from Fiddler.  That the forlorn and tramatized Jew must once again be symbolized by the plaintive elegies of a solo violin (here played, predictably, by Joshua Bell), no matter how beautiful these may be, and they typically are, suggests a failure of invention, and worse, a packaging of the Holocaust theme by Hollywood into a neat set of icons and configurations that mock the horrendous truth of what real victims suffered and real survivors lived through.  At once sickening instant the youngest brother stumbles upon a mass grave in the forest, a kind of meandering pink river that is actually a trench filled with naked bodies.  But Zwick and cinematographer Eduardo Serra cheat the situation, and the history that the situation refers to, by performing one of the truly mammoth focus pulls in cinematic history, so that the boy almost immediately seems to be having some kind of  hallucinogenic experience.

Craig is rather interesting to watch.  One is looking hard to see whether as the scenes skip by he will prove that he is not quintessentially James Bond and, in truth, almost from the start, he does.  He is properly purposive, haggard, and sympathetic, and the intended “realism” of the situation (as opposed to the glamorous fantasy of Bond) pushes him to new limits, often quiet ones.  Yes, he can act, but the Russianized English slips once or twice too often into Scottish brogue.  Schreiber is much better, even in his pronunciation of lines in Russian—which, prospective viewers should know, are legion in this film:  more than half of it requires subtitles.

In the end we find those sweet little credit cards that inform us what happened in “real life” to our characters.  The eldest brothers ended up running a business in America.  The older teen went off fighting and died a few years later.  Of the youngest, bizarrely, we learn absolutely nothing, as though just like the mass grave he witnessed he simply became a blur and disappeared.  This film was designed to achieve one principal effect, and, rather relentlessly, it does:  to show the world that Jews don’t just stand there and take it, that they can fight back, that when provoked they, too, can be vicious.  Given that anti-semitism is alive and well, and that some anti-semites harbor very negative thoughts indeed, this is not a bad message for Zwick to be sending.  But it would be so much more credible, and even thought-provoking, without that wretched violin.