Saturday, August 15, 2009
New on DVD Post--Defiance
But before I start on the bad things about the movie, let me praise the good. It had very good performances by nearly everyone. It was beautiful, shot in Lithuania, about 100 miles from the forest it portrayed. The producer/director Edward Zwick has a long pedigree, having been responsible for the following: Last Samurai, Courage Under Fire, The Siege, Legends of the Fall, Glory and Special Bulletin. He also produced Traffic and Shakespeare in Love as well as several pretty good TV shows--the divorce show Once and Again, My So-Called Life and Thirty Something. You understand that I'm setting you up for a fall here.
Because this is basically a true story and has a lot of good actors in it and a very good director/producer, it should have been a lot better, a lot more powerful. What went wrong? Let's take care of the easy ones first.
Daniel Craig, the new James Bond (and a good one) who plays the nicer Bielski brother, Tuvia, looks about as Jewish as Halle Berry. I know there are blue eyed, blondish haired Jews, but there are not many of them; and it doesn't matter that he played an unlikely Jew before in Munich, a movie I pretty much detested.
They make a huge deal about getting Amoxicillin from a local Belarusian police station in order to treat typhus. Amoxicillin wasn't available until the 60s and it has proved ineffective in treatment for typhus.
The idea that the German army deployed a full armored division (18,000 men) and lost to the 100 or so partisans around the Beilski brothers is foolish. Some people say the Bielski partisans never fought the Germans, but only their proxies in Belarus and Poland. Also, I'm not buying the Swiss 61 modified to look like a Pkw III. Nor was the Stuka attack at all convincing as the explosions were way too small, since the plane, the Junkers Ju 87, typically carried one 1100 pound bomb and four 110 pounders.
Zus Bielski was apparently much more of a mad dog type partisan, who cut off the heads of collaborators with the Nazis and put them of stakes with warning signs, and might have shoved soon to explode grenades up the rectum of captured soldiers and policemen. Not the brothers, apparently, but the Bielski Partisans probably attacked a Polish village and killed over a hundred innocent civilians.
Why is the speech about the protocols of the Jewish partisans delivered off a white stallion (destined, alas, for the stew pot)?
Back to the good things. Alan Cordunar, who was terrific as Sir Arthur Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy and as a Hungarian doctor in Birkenau in The Grey Zone, is broadly Jewish here but rises above cliche. The generally death-to-a-TV-series actor, Mark Feuerstein, plays a generally useless Jewish intellectual near perfectly. Most of the women are great too but perhaps the stand out is Australian Mia Wasikowska, who was the very troubled gymnast on the unsatisfying HBO series In Treatment. Craig and Liev Schreiber are very good, but they usually are in the laconic, tightly bound in performances they generally give. The male stand out was however the young Brit actor, Jamie Bell, who played here doomed Asael Bielski. Bell was the original Billy Elliot but also good in The Chumscrubber.
So what was wrong? Perhaps the scope was too narrow. The Bielskis are credited with saving 1,200 Jews from the Ghetto and death camps, but we rarely see more than 60 people. The sets are perhaps too beautiful and the real suffering they must have endured is muted and wan. The battle scenes are crap, to my inexperienced way of thinking. Generally a good story that got away.
Below are the real Partisans.
Big missed opportunity.