Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Musing Pictures: Defiance

Before I begin discussing "Defiance", I would like to thank for syndicating this article, and to welcome all of the new readers who have arrived here via that site. is now publicizing my musings on Jewish or Israeli films, beginning with this one.

"Defiance" (2008, directed by Edward Zwick) is a mainstream, A-list Holocaust movie. It is the latest (or not even the latest any more) in a string of large-scale Hollywood films to tackle the subject of Germany's genocide. Any film that approaches this subject must do so carefully -- the Holocaust is a minefield of sensitivities, misinformation and anger. One of the central questions asked about Hollywood's various interpretations has to do with re-creation, and it is one aspect of this question that I would like to discuss here.

Aside from the obvious perverse aspect of "re-creating" the Holocaust, any re-enactment is necessarily less powerful, less monumental than the event itself. At the same time, a creative re-telling can often find a broader audience, and may bear meaning to more people than outright documentary. "Schindler's List" was, in many ways, a challenge to what had been considered the most monumental Holocaust film of its day: "Shoah" (1985). This documentary by Claude Lanzmann is nothing but interviews and contemporary, contemplative footage of the places where the recounted events unfolded. Jewish survivors, their non-Jewish counterparts, and other witnesses of the Holocaust tell their stories. The picture painted by "Shoah" is very broad, very personal, and very genuine. There is no archival footage in the film, no re-enactment, no attempt at creative short-hand to speed the story along. There is no doubt that this is one of the most compelling, important films on the Holocaust, but it has a fatal flaw: "Shoah" has a running time of roughly nine and a half hours! A few film buffs might have caught it at a film festival or two, but for the most part, the only people with the patience and commitment to sit through the entire film are people who are already very familiar with the Holocaust and its narratives. "Schindler's List", on the other hand, was seen by millions upon millions of people all over the world.
Re-enactment and dramatic re-creation can make the Holocaust accessible to the general public. Since "Schindler's List", large-scale films from Hollywood and elsewhere have been rising to the task. Of course, there are dangers behind using fiction to teach historical fact. First, especially with the Holocaust, narrative films always understate the situation. As vast and sweeping as films such as "Schindler's List", "Life is Beautiful" or "The Pianist" are, they still tell only a tiny fraction of the historical story. Each narrative includes characters and events that are meant to represent the broader catastrophe, but they can never fully capture its scope. Since many film viewers are not attuned to the representational tools employed by filmmakers, and since many films do not call attention to their own artifice, viewers often fuse what they see in films with what they've learned as facts. When those of us who did not experience the Holocaust think of the Holocaust, do we imagine things as they were, or do we imagine fictional images that we've seen on TV? The problem becomes more significant when it comes to the atrocities themselves. The Nazis were notorious propagandists, and as such, they maintained very careful control of the films and photographs taken in or around the central apparatus of their Final Solution. There is almost no footage at all from within a death camp or concentration camp during the war. So, when we think of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, what images come to mind? Are they images from historical footage, or are they re-creations? I would argue that the harshest images that come to mind are not authentic, but re-creations we've seen in films or on television.
Filmmakers who tackle the Holocaust must grapple with the challenge of presenting a compelling re-creation while reminding their viewers that what they are seeing is, in fact, not nearly as awful as the Holocaust itself. In effect, filmmakers must remind their audience that they are seeing a movie. This goes against the grain of the Hollywood aesthetic, which emphasizes hiding the movie-ness of a movie (you're not supposed to realize you're watching a movie when you're watching it -- you are meant to be completely absorbed in its narrative). Spielberg achieved this in "Schindler's List" in several ways, most notably with the well-known "girl in the red coat". Although the film is shot in black-and-white, the scene in which the Warsaw Ghetto is liquidated includes one splash of color - the red of a little, lost girl's coat stands out among the shades of gray. The scene is deeply moving, but also obviously artificial. As we watch the movie, we are reminded that we are watching a movie. Once we realize that, we can begin to understand the girl, the scene, and in fact the entire film as references to a broader historical tragedy.
"Defiance" approaches this challenge in a slightly different way. It begins with grainy, black-and-white footage of the Nazi invasion of Belarussia. We hear the gunshots, the screams, the sounds of chaos as the film unspools. I was very nervous when this scene began. The audio that underlies the archival images is not authentic to those images, but recorded nearly seventy years later by voice actors and sound effects artists half a world away from where the events took place. I know this, but would a typical viewer know it? Was the film trying to pass fiction off as fact (when the fact itself is strong enough without requiring falsification) After a short while, one shot, in particular, begins to change. It begins as a grainy black-and-white shot, apparently archival, but the scratches slowly fade away, and the image slowly gains its color. What appeared archival was, in fact, re-creation. We are shown this as a reminder of the artifice of what we are seeing, (a visual reminder, where the aural reminder might have been missed by most viewers) but also as a reminder of its connection to historical fact. In its first few minutes, "Defiance" defines itself in the context of the history it re-creates.
This somewhat self-reflexive moment is something to look for in any Holocaust film, especially in the context of education. Does the film offer reminders of its artifice, of the fact that what it presents is not the same as what it represents?
I am curious about how this will apply to Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds", which comes out this month. That film's premise is so over-the-top that it might not need to incorporate this sort of visual disclaimer. I'm sure to have a lot to say about it when I do catch it in theaters a few weeks from now, and I'm sure I'll write about it here. See you then!


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