Defiance – A film about Leadership

January 14, 2009

Released last Friday, Edward Zwick’s film Defiance is the latest in an ever lengthening line of films depicting different aspects of life during the Second World War.

The film is an adaptation of Nechama Tec’s book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. Set in Belorussia, it focuses on four Jewish brothers who have escaped from their village where the local authorities handed all Jews over to the Nazis, shooting their parents in the process. The brothers hide in the woods, that they know so well from their youth where they would hide from the police, often wanted for smuggling. As the eldest, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) assumes natural leadership of his brothers, but soon there are more joining them. Aron the youngest goes wandering off and discovers other Jews hiding in the forest and brings them back to his brothers. Tuvia calls for the old man to lay his sick child down, while the reflex of Zus, the second oldest, is to lift his gun in suspicion. Zus (Liev Schreiber) is not impressed at these extra mouths, and sends Tuvia to get food while he waits with Aron and the other brother, Asael.

Tuvia returns with food, a pistol, and more Jews – including his old teacher – who he met while hiding in the barn of Jewish sympathiser, Koscik. As the camp grows, so does their reliance on the brothers and in particular Tuvia who becomes defacto commander. The Bielski Otriad grows in reputation and more Jews come, Tuvia and Asael even going on a mission to the nearby ghetto to bring as many out as they can which leads to Zus mockingly calling him ‘Moses’.

In the early part of the film Tuvia’s leadership goes unchallenged. It is he who has rescued these people from the Nazis, and has organised food missions to feed them, giving compassionate orders to “take from those who can afford to give, and leave alone those who can’t”. When the camp is discovered by local collaborators, it is Tuvia who is quick to point and yell instructions and directions, differentiating in the spur of the moment between those who need to run, and those who need to stay and fight. He is a good delegator in the midst of chaos.

 Zus begins to doubt Tuvia’s direction as he sees more mouths and less food in the camp. He claims that “they only follow you because they are too weak and afraid for themselves.” A fight ensues and Zus leaves with some of the best men to join the Russian Partisans.

As Zus and Tuvia fight, it is Asael who steps in from amongst the crowd, shouting for his oldest brother to stop as he holds a rock in his hand ready to crush Zus. This is the first glimmer of initiative that we have seen in him. Our previous sightings of Asael were when he was sobbing as they first went on the run and when Tuvia had to force him to go talk to Chaya, the girl who he had taken an interest in. As their mutual interest grows, it takes the intervention of Bella to tell him to hurry up and propose, and his unfinished muttered proposal is accepted with haste. Now a married man, he grows in confidence and begins to teach the new camp dwellers how to shoot, encouraging and rousing them with Tanakh-littered rhetoric.

Zus meanwhile is off with the Russian partisans. He is defensive about his relationship with his elder brother, responding to the Commander’s remark “You compete with him” with an instinctive,”He competes with me”. He helps out Tuvia in a mission to get medicine for the typhoid-suffering at the camp, but this seems to be as much proving to his older brother that he is able and strong. He says to his sickly brother; “I give the orders tonight” as he tells him to stay in the truck.

When one of his Jewish comrades is beaten for using an officer’s latrine because the man “would not shit in the same toilet as a Jew” it is Zus who takes up the complaint with the Commander, taking upon himself the role of liaison officer for his injured friend, seeking justice. When the Russians retreat it is Zus who his friends turn to to find out what is going on and why

As Tuvia’s sickness worsens it creates a power vacuum at camp. Asael has seemingly been handed responsibility in his brother’s absence but the rebellious Arkady Lubczanski takes no heed. He demands extra portions of food as one of the hunters, and responds to Asael’s command to get back in line with a threateningly held knife. Order is restored when Tuvia enters, and Arkady follows his orders to get back in the queue without question.

However more disturbance is not far away. With Tuvia recuperating in his cabin, Arkady has forcibly introduced a new policy that fighters receive better food portions. When Tuvia questions him he responds “You are no longer commander”. Tuvia looks to walk away and then turns round and shoots Arkady dead. His cronies are ordered to go dump his body. He then looks to reassert his flailing authority, telling all “As long as I am leader, you will obey my commands. There will be no complaining, no sitting, no doing nothing.”

Later, With Luftwaffe planes circling above, it is Tuvia who makes the rapid decision to leave immediately. He delegates Isaac – the intellectual of the group – to spread the word, and busies himself with rushing people out of camp. Alas they have been spotted and an air raid comes leaving Tuvia – literally – shell shocked.

With his older brother dazed and confused, Asael steps up the mark showing complete awareness of the situation. With the planes having done their damage he knows the infantry will follow and knows the best places to post his shooters. He makes wise decisions quickly, leaving no time for uncertainty. He serves others by helping the injured despite his weak frame.

While Asael and those he trained to shoot stay to delay the infantry, the others follow Tuvia further down the trail. The run soon descends into a slow walk, illustrating the lack of hope and ideas their leader now holds. He looks exhausted, weary and ready to give up. Yet it is still he they turn to when they reach the end of the trail and are faced with a swamp.

“Tuvia, do we stay or do we go?”

“Tuvia, what do we do?”

The hesitancy allows for indecision and arguments, with no one stepping forward to assume leadership. With so many options being given as to whether to turn back, to stay or to continue forward, nothing is getting done. Tuvia has lost all hope and tells his new love Lilka to turn her gun on herself before the Germans would get her.

At that moment Asael arrives, despairing at the lack of movement with German troops soon to descend upon them. He immediately senses Tuvia’s lethargy and steps in with a rousing speech:

“Nothing is impossible. What we have done is impossible. We will go forward, not by miracles, but by our own strength.” He asks for rope, belts to support them as they cross the swamp. He deals with problems with decisiveness and swift.

“We won’t have enough rope”

“Then we’ll link arms”

“What if someone slips?”

“The strong will carry the weak”

His confidence is infectious and soon there is a massive response with all sorts of belts flying in as the group numbering in their hundreds make their way across the swamp. Tuvia is now rejuvenated by his younger brother’s initiative and thanks him with a kiss.

Upon reaching the other side, Tuvia’s old teacher is breathing his last. He uses his final words to tell Tuvia: “I thank him (God) and I thank you”. Despite organising food missions, ensuring that hundreds could be fed, killing his own horse at one stage to feed his community and leading them away safely from danger twice; this is the first time that Tuvia has been thanked for his efforts.

The final battle in the film sees the Jews face more Germans, this time armed with a tank. Yet clever thinking from Tuvia and the return of Zus ensure that once more the community is kept safe from harm, as they go on to build a new camp, brothers reconciled and hope regained.

Tuvia’s leadership is strong and macho, using initiative and delegation to gain the support and following from those lacking direction. But it is also somewhat iron fisted. When confronted by Zus at one point, he tells him, “I cannot have you questioning me in front of the others”. His reaction to Arkady in shooting him – which whilst seemed to fit with the survival mood of the film – showed a lack of patience and unwillingness to discuss problems with opposition. It is interesting to note that Tuvia, knowing what it is like to lead these people thanks Asael for leading them across the swamp, despite us never seeing him thanked himself until the very end. Are we thankful for our leaders? Do they know it?

Zus’s leadership is as much about competing with his older brother as anything. When the Russian Partisan Commander asks him “Are you related to Bielski” he replies, “I am Bielski”. Stronger in build and seemingly infuriated by his position in the family, he seeks to rebel against Tuvia and lead men to join the Partisan’s only to find there that he has no identity or standing amongst them, some of whom are deeply Anti-Semitic. Zus allows his natural leadership abilities to be marred by jealousy and competition. Do we seek only to lead and never to be led when there are others with more experience? Can we take a back seat, and offer support?

Asael’s leadership is one that develops throughout the film. He goes from the terribly timid boy who couldn’t approach his future wife without fear to a man who shows courage in the face of adversity, and manages to pick up his community and its leader when they seemed resigned to death. He communicates well with Tuvia, letting him know what the mood around the camp is. He grows in confidence, yet never displays signs of cockiness. He knows when to take orders, and when to take over and give them.

For me Asael is the hero of the film. A young man who gains respect, though he does not demand it. A young man who develops into a leader, discerning the positive and negative qualities from his older brothers and putting the good attributes into action. A man who serves others; Asael shows us what a good leader can be like.

The ultimate example of a leader is found in the Bible, in the example of Jesus. God manifest in man who spent three years training his disciples, imparting upon them his wisdom and knowledge. He taught them by observation, setting examples not only in leadership, but in how to live a life honouring to God. One of the most stunning examples he gave them was when he washed their feet, just hours before he would be led away to death. He showed that being a leader does not mean to be at the front all the time, to be served. Jesus showed that as a leader we should serve others, not only by washing the feet of those who followed him, but by the ultimate sacrifice – His death so that we can live.

Jesus said; “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

And so as he served us, we should serve him through serving others