Yet Edward Zwick’s Defiance has given rise to two uneasy reactions, one in America and one in Poland, on the surface very different, at bottom rather similar. Each has to do with the absence of a familiar face of tyranny. Americans tend to wonder at the absence of the Nazis. The famous film critic Roger Ebert admits that he would have found the film more emotionally powerful had there been a Nazi with a speaking part. Taken by itself, apart from his thoughtful review, this admission seems odd. His typically American use of the word “Nazi” reveals a certain cinematic misunderstanding that Defiance might help to remedy. In a discussion about a Hollywood film, “Nazi” means something like “the bad guys, incontestably evil, in a European setting.” The Nazi is the one who will kill the Jews.
Yet many of the people who were killing Jews were not Nazis. Most SS men were Nazis by conviction and party membership; but the German policemen and soldiers who killed Jews were not necessarily members of the National Socialist Party. The German civilian administration, responsible for the murder of Jews in much of Belarus in 1942, depended on Jewish policemen in the larger ghettos and Belarusian (and Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Ukrainian) policemen in the cities and countryside. The gentile collaborators, under German command, supplied the manpower for the roundups and did some of the shooting. The Jewish police, under German orders, prevented escapes from ghettos. Without the labor of local policemen, the Holocaust would have been impossible.
Killing Jews was a Nazi idea, but its realization depended more on power than ideology, a discomfiting thought for those who expect moral entertainment in a movie theater. Yet it was precisely because power rather than ideas mattered in the Belarusian forests that Tuvia Bielski had a chance. And it was precisely Bielski’s power to save Jews that seemed to bother A.O. Scott, who reviewed the film in The New York Times. According to Scott, the film affirms an anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish passivity by suggesting that more Jews would have survived had they embodied Bielski’s manly virtues. The argument, I take it, is that the film overestimates the importance of character at the expense of circumstance, and thus distorts the overall history of the Holocaust. Character certainly mattered in this case. People found Tuvia charismatic; Daniel Craig communicates masculinity in the role. Women called Bielski the Messiah. Yet there is good reason for Scott’s discomfort: the film does concern an exceptional case, but exceptional for reasons beyond the virtues of its main character.
Without some sense of the special conditions in wartime Belarus, the rescue makes little sense. Jews who survived the Holocaust did so not only because they showed personal courage but because they understood that German rule meant death and they knew of …