Adding Dimension to Survival, Essay Example
20th and 21st century retrospection has consistently viewed the Holocaust of the World War II years with outrage and disdain. It is as though today’s nations find it incomprehensible that such cruelty, chiefly directed at a religious and ethnic population, could have been permitted to go on as long as it did,. The media, not unexpectedly, has mirrored the perceptions and the outrage in a wide variety of films over many decades. Many of these, like1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg and 1993’s Schindler’s List, continue to draw universal acclaim. They also, however, tend to present a uniformity of mass persecution, and portray the Jews of the era as, essentially, helpless victims of monstrosity. In such films, Jewish survival relies on external assistance, and it is likely that such assistance was usually necessary under the horrific circumstances, if any Jews were to survive. Nonetheless, this ignores an implacable reality; human beings express resistance in ways not always going to escape or retribution, and two modern films demonstrate this universal and human mechanism. The Pianist and Defiance clearly convey that Jews victimized by the Holocaust were not passive sufferers, but more a people determined to maintain identity and dignity by any means possible.
The 2008 film, Defiance, based on a true story, takes a more conventional avenue in approaching Jewish resistance to German brutality, even as it reveals layers beyond strategies of retaliation and survival. This is a Holocaust film triggering visceral senses of righteous retribution, and in a motif more typical of a war or action movie than a reflection on persecution itself. Here, survival is a gritty and relentless business, orchestrated by the efforts of brothers
Tuvia and Zus Bielski in a forest. Tension pervades the entire film, as the lives of the Jews are blatantly seen as so vulnerable that a single misstep would translate to immediate death. Moreover, Defiance does not leave the motivations of the brothers to the audience’s imagination; as their family was slaughtered, so too are the horrors of other Jews exposed, adding urgency to every scene of hiding and reprisal. Scene after scene involves frantic attempts to stay one step ahead of the Germans, and this gives the film a momentum placing it within the action genre. On a certain level, then, this is a Holocaust film seemingly about only validated retribution, intense and sudden conflict, and the efforts of brave Jews to survive in impossibly crushing circumstances.
Aggression in Defiance, however, is only one dimension of the story, which transcends both justified retaliation and even the unique scenario of the Jews themselves. More crucial is that a group of human beings are adapting to a way of life unknown to them, and shifting all the time. More exactly, they are surviving, and the film conveys that survival goes beyond escaping death and starvation. This is profoundly evident in the wedding scene set in the refugee forest, as a light snowfall wafts over the smiling guests and the young couple before the rabbi. Tuvia stands as best man, as Zus and his men wait to ambush a German patrol nearby. The juxtaposition of the scenes of gunfire and happy revelry are striking in themselves, but the also underscore a vital point. It is not merely life that the brothers are determined to protect, but life in as much of the fullness of living as can be had. Survival is of course essential, but equally necessary is that identity and community be preserved, if human beings are to survive at all.
Similarly, the scene in which Tuvia exacts revenge on the police chief responsible for his parents’ death is both retributive and expansive. Even as avenging the murders is clearly Tuvia’s object, there is no sense of resolution achieved. He shoots the sons, then the father, and he spares the mother, yet all of it seems repellant to him, even as he is compelled to do so. This conveys a sad perpetuity to the film, in that, once brutality is in place, it can never be truly redressed. Action is taken and “justice” is done, but Tuvia and the audience understand that real justice became unobtainable when the war crimes first began. The message is that life cannot be replaced, which affirms the greater meaning in the scene and the film of the necessity for honoring all the aspects of life through living, and not merely surviving.
2002’s The Pianist takes a more subtle and intimate course in examining just what survival means, even as it also presents the vital impetus of maintaining selfhood as the true key to survival. If Defiance is about aggression and active, usually bloody, resistance, The Pianist is about evasion and escape. The message, however, remains the same. Wladyslaw Szpilman is no rebel fighter, out to extract as much vengeance as he can on the monstrous presence of the Germans; he is simply a man caught up in a nightmare of cruelty, and each step he takes is a necessary adaptation to stay alive. Realistically, he is both victim and witness to what is occurring, and he has no agenda beyond the moment’s needs. It is this element, however, that highlights the human nature abused by the Holocaust, as it emphasizes the nature of humanity itself anywhere when madness eclipses life. This is most powerfully evident in the scene when Szpilman is being led to the Treblinka train, and a friend saves him by violently extracting him from the crowd. Szpilman’s impulse is to return, and he attempts to break through the German line to call to his father. His friend’s reminder of what awaits him in that line, however, forces him to safety. In a matter of moments, reality changes dramatically and humanity is redefined. It is not that Szpilman suddenly chooses to save his own life and ignore his family; rather, he is compelled to comprehend that choices are essentially non-existent in this landscape. If Tuvia Bielski sacrifices a better part of his own humanity in executing the police chief and his sons, so too does Szpilman momentarily discard the better part of his own. In each instance, measures of humanity are constricted by horrific circumstances, even as each man urgently needs to reclaim that better, more true, self whenever it is possible.
This imperative to reclaim or maintain the self through dire adversity is most powerfully expressed in the scene when the German officer orders the battered and starved Szpilman to play for him. Much is made of this scene because of the unifying power of the music, and the effect it has on the German. Certainly, on one level, it reveals that an understanding of beauty must unite mankind, no matter the external forces around it. Even as the German’s reaction is both humane and vital for the story, however, it is more important that the playing permits Szpilman to “be himself,” and not a victim of extreme circumstances. For years, he has been compelled to sneak and manipulate means of staying alive, and been reduced to the barest level of survival. He has no comrades and friends in a forest to affirm his identity, as in Defiance. He has only his inner self to turn to, and the immensely critical value of recognizing this true identity again through communion with his music. In this scene of The Pianist, as in the moments of community achieved in Defiance, something noteworthy is expressed about the nature of survival, and in a way beyond that of the Holocaust or any other specific instance of historical, mass persecution. Survival is never enough, be it in the forms of successful evasion or outright retaliation, because only opportunities to be human render survival worthwhile at all.
The enormity and the sheer brutality of the Holocaust is imprinted on the memory and imagination of the world, and it is inevitable that filmmakers would employ this immense chapter from history to express certain views regarding humanity itself. Most, no matter the actual subject matter, portray the Jews of the time as victims, at best able only to stay alive during the German regime’s sway. A few, however, uncover other aspects to this scenario, and say something more about what composes and motivates survival efforts themselves. Defiance reveals an aggressive and suspenseful strategy of bitter retaliation against the enemy, while The Pianist more intimately conveys one artists desperate maneuvers to endure. Both films, however, also go beyond these external mechanisms to present and examine an often overlooked element in the experiences of the Jews, or of any group so persecuted. They convey that a connection to the self and a sense of true identity, established through communal closeness or a Chopin nocturne, is as crucial to real survival as food, shelter, or an escape from murdering soldiers. The Pianist and Defiance ultimately assert that Jews victimized by the Holocaust were not passive sufferers, but human beings determined to maintain their identity and dignity by any means possible.
Defiance. Dir. Edward Zwick. Perf. Danial Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and Alexa Davalos. Paramount, 2008. Film.
The Pianist. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, and Thomas Kretschmann. R.P. Productions, 2002. Film.
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