Defiance: How Jews Depict Jews Within a Larger Context

by Guest Contributor Matt Egan

Starring Liev Schrieber and Daniel Craig, directed by Edward Zwick, Defiance tells the story of the Bielskis, Jews who fought the Nazis in the woods of what is now Belarus. Zwick is Jewish. Schreiber is Jewish and has done a number of Jewish-themed projects lately, including the relatively unsuccessful adaptation of the novel Everything is Illuminated and starring on Broadway as Alan Berg in a revival of Talk Radio. I found Defiance moving, but also entertaining. It swells with action in the best tradition of Hollywood. For some people, this is a problem. The most commonly expressed fear of directors making films about the Holocaust is that they will trivialize and exploit the tragedy. Ralph Seliger complains about historical inaccuracies and that the Bielskis are cheapened as “the image of Hollywood heroes.” My concern is different. There were six Holocaust films out at one time, but given the history of how Hollywood has depicted Jews and the Holocaust – and the way in which I understand antisemitism as shaping that depiction – Defiance was the only one I had any interest in seeing.

Perhaps embarrassed by the number of Holocaust movies out at once, Humorist Joel Stein wrote a satirical column in December for the LA Times a short while back that parodies the common myth that The Jews run Hollywood:

As a proud Jew, I want America to know about our accomplishment. Yes, we control Hollywood. Without us, you’d be flipping between “The 700 Club” and “Davey and Goliath” on TV all day.

So I’ve taken it upon myself to re-convince America that Jews run Hollywood by launching a public relations campaign, because that’s what we do best. I’m weighing several slogans, including: “Hollywood: More Jewish than ever!”; “Hollywood: From the people who brought you the Bible”; and “Hollywood: If you enjoy TV and movies, then you probably like Jews after all.”

I thought that the piece was funny and subversively camp. However, I’m also concerned he’s playing with fire. It was no surprise to me when the top Google hit for Stein’s piece was a white supremacist website. The problem with such views, even when they seem pro-Jewish, is in the way it treats us collectively. That “we.” “The Jews.” It focuses on who is making movies at the expense of any discussion of the movies they actually make. I have never run a Hollywood studio, and neither has any Jew I’ve ever known. And those machers (that’s Yiddish) in Hollywood are more than just Jewish. No matter how tempting it is to attribute to them some sort of “Jewish worldview,” the way they see movie-making probably owes more to being Hollywood bigshots than to being Jewish. It owes at least as much to their American-ness. It certainly owes more than anything to the American-ness of their primary audiences, who still scream about the Unamerican “Hollywood agenda.”

But let me explain, instead, what’s true about what some antisemites say. Antisemitism has never completely relied on keeping Jews poor. Though excluded from respectability, there have often in history been outside routes to affluence open to at least some few Jews. Hollywood is a typical example. At the time of Hollywood’s founding, Jews faced difficulties working in many respectable professions. The world over, acting has always been mostly disreputable, associated with prostitution figuratively and literally. So many white Americans who could have competed in the founding of Hollywood avoided it. Other minorities lacked the resources to take the same risks.

At the same time, many Jews had an affinity for theater that came from a daily experience of “passing” as non-Jews. Actor Daniel Day Lewis once explained that his first acting job was to fit into his London neighborhood by hiding, among other differences, his Jewishness. (This is similar to the affinity for theater common in gay communities.) Jews also had an urge to contribute to American culture so we could prove our own American-ness. And so Jews really were dominate in the creation of Hollywood. Since it’s creation, there have always been lots of Jew in Hollywood at the highest levels. And as actors and directors.

The fact that there was a large Jewish presence in Hollywood may have kept us away from too many noxiously antisemitic depictions of Jews, but it hasn’t meant that Hollywood has been part of a real discussion on antisemitism. In the run-up to World War II, while the America First movement polemicized about Jewish power and “kikes in Hollywood” driving us to war, Jewish filmmakers avoided calling attention to themselves. They feared fueling stories of Jewish conspiracy and power. Only United Artists, owned by three of the most powerful actors in the business – Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford – dared with Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Because of the film, rumors persist today that Chaplin was Jewish. He himself tended to answer the accusations with a noble “it wouldn’t matter if I were,” but he was actually from a secular Christian background.

Despite a significant Jewish presence, or rather because of it, Hollywood shied away from anything overtly Jewish for a long time. A few films, like Gentlemen’s Agreement were entirely uncontroversial, and went overboard trying to erase differences to appeal to a majority audience. There wasn’t any acknowledgment that Jews have a right to be different without being viewed as Unamerican. And the film gives the impression, by the end, that it has solved the problem of antisemitism.

On the other hand, when Jews have appeared explicitly as Jews onscreen (big and small), they fit an over-determined mold. There’s a long history of viewing Jewish men as weak and feminine. There was even a belief at one time that Jewish men menstruated. This stereotype is still alive in Hollywood. Think Woody Allen: meek, timid, un-masculine, neurotic, intellectual. When I was growing up, L.A. Law was prominent. It might be hard to remember today, but for several years it was the biggest show on television. Unlike the other attorneys on the show –who were womanizers, who did criminal law, who were masculine, who were played by Jimmy Smits and Corbin Berson– the Stuart Markowitz character was a tax attorney who never had to appear in court. I don’t just remember his character – I also remember him a good foot and a half shorter than his wife. One of the few episodes I remember made fun of the idea of him having sex: after a heart attack, his doctor told him not to just avoid positions that would be too strenuous.

David Schwimmer, before Friends made him famous, was told he was “too ethnic” for leading roles, but he was certainly able to play nerdy and Jewish. Michael Cera’s character in Juno, Paulie Bleeker, is Jewish (note a Hebrew ABCs poster in his room). When Juno describes this guy who has almost no words in the entire script as the funniest guy she knows, I cringed.

And the real proof of the stereotypes Jews find themselves under in Hollywood is the complete absence of alternatives.

Tony Curtis (born Bernard Schwartz) was too tough, so he played Italians. Henry Winkler, better known as the Fonz, played Italian for that role. Harvey Keitel played Italians. If at all assertive or aggressive, even actresses get the same treatment. Estelle Getty, with a comedy style straight from the borscht belt, played an Italian, Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls. Rhea Perlman played Carla Tortelli on Cheers, though she played “the nice girl,” as described in the episode title where she first appears, Zena Sherman on Taxi.

When the Jewish characters in Knocked Up started talking about Steven Spielberg’s Munich – “If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich” – that meant something to a lot of people who could relate to never seeing representations of themselves on screen.

The problem with analyzing these stereotype, though, is that the alternative is often silence. Speaking out about these representations could mean that filmmakers decide it is too much of a risk to put Jews in films. Simply removing Jews from screens might be worse than allowing these flawed images to stand – and the stereotypes sometime serves a purpose for Jews.

While the character of Wormser from Revenge of the Nerds wasn’t explicitly Jewish, that’s how non-Jewish actor Andrew Cassese thought of the character. I find Cassese’s perception of Wormser to be deeply offensive. On the other hand, the folks at Heeb magazine apparently appreciate the homage. Some Jews read some examples as stereotypes while others read the same example as signifying Jewishness from within the closet. I introduced the stereotype with Woody Allen, but I love his movies. It’s complicated trying to draw the line between the stuff that’s merely stereotype and the stuff that uses stereotype cleverly to create a double address. Actually, much of the best stuff is camp that’s beyond my ability to explain, but let me point you to Mel Brooks’s “Hitler Rap.”

Like gays in Hollywood, Jews made films that could be read from a Jewish perspective by those in the know, but which passed by most of America without comment. Forgetting Sarah Marshall offers an excellent, recent example. For many viewers, the names Rachel and Sarah (with an h) aren’t notable, but to me, these are very much Jewish names. I doubt many viewers ever noticed the last names of these characters – Jansen and Marshall. Those are very un-Jewish. Being aware of who made the film and of certain themes that are important to Jews in art, clues like the names of characters gave me a way of reading the film that probably never occurred to most viewers. Rachel, played by the Jewish actress Mila Kunis, has dark hair and skin. Sarah is blond and fair-skinned. So there is some ambiguity to both, but Rachel is ‘more Jewish’ than Sarah. Aldous Snow -marked as strongly white by his name and his English accent- is successful in many ways, despite being an idiot, because he is white. On the other hand, Peter’s problems relate to being Jewish. The Mormon newlyweds emphasize the relationship between religious background, social inclusion, and sexuality. The film becomes a commentary on the more common theme, found in Woody Allen movies and Philip Roth novels as well as There’s Something About Mary, where the Jewish male assimilates by embracing gentile women. Here, success is found in embracing Jewishness. This is often lost on audiences who miss the double address – the quiet nod to Jewish viewers of a mainstream movie.

But can -or should- there be a double address in a Holocaust film?

Of course, the Holocaust was a major event in Western History, and there are lots of stories to tell. The problem isn’t that any particular film decenters the Jewish experience, but that so many of them do while making a different set of claims. Though it had a Catholic protagonist, the media reports surrounding Schindler’s List were all about how Spielberg was Jewish and how Jewish audiences cried at screenings. Sinking further, both Valkyrie and The Reader decenter Jews to rehabilitate mass murderers. (More on those two films in a bit.)

The best Holocaust films, like The Counterfeiters, are anything but life-affirming. They refuse to present the Holocaust as a heartwarming story for the whole family. That has a lot to do with being European films. Europe has a strong history of public funding of film as art, and so European films are less pressured to turn a profit. Hollywood, by contrast, is addicted to sugary endings, and would never make a film quite like that. Additionally, while Europe experienced WWII as an unmitigated disaster, the US has always seen itself as the hero of the story.

Films like 1961′s Judgment at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy, about the trial of Nazi leaders, thus emphasized an American leadership role in the world. That film, because it showed documentary footage from the camps, was important for creating a sense of the atrocity that had occurred far away. It did not shy away from blaming the German people who were, with very few exceptions, at best (seriously, At Best), willfully ignorant of what it had done. It pushed for idealism over a pragmatism that shifted blame during the rebuilding of Germany. And it pushed powerfully for a moral and liberal America.

But there are no Jewish characters. There is no mention of Jews that isn’t among a larger list. If any group is singled out as a victim of the Nazis, it is the Communists. The least repentant of the defendents explains the necessity of what was done to protect Germany from Bolsheviks. In the wake of McCarthyism, it makes sense that this should be in the subtext of the film, but rather it replaces what should be the text.

Of the recent crop of Holocaust-based movies, two films stand out. Valkrie because of it’s big budget and marketing and The Reader because of its Oscar nominations and the award given to Kate Winslet.

Valkyrie, in keeping with Hollywood’s typical optimism, depicts the Good German. Who cares if the German heroes of the story weren’t actually such nice people? This parody of the trailer sums up many of the problems. The plot to assassinate Hitler was so that he could be replaced with a better military leader – not to stop the Holocaust, but to win the war. The Tom Cruise character, von Stauffenberger, was in reality as antisemitic and nasty as you would expect a high ranking Nazi to be.

The Reader, parodied here as The Hot Illiterate Nazi, is also about a Good German. Ron Rosenbaum’s excellent article, an impassioned plea against giving an Oscar to the film, explains the “essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution.” Historian Deborah Lipstadt calls The Reader pernicious. “This is a rewriting of history. It is, simply put, soft core denial.”

Against all this baggage, Defiance shines as something never before seen from Hollywood. It’s got Jews as action heroes. Daniel Craig, who also plays James Bond, stars as a Jewish character. It would be better if we could get a Jewish actor to play James Bond, but it’s pretty awesome that James Bond plays a Jew.

As for historical inaccuracies, Seliger complains that the historical Soviet commander Pachenko was quite kind toward the Bielskis. But the film has no other Soviets but Pachenko’s unit, and it’s appropriate to depict Soviets the Bielskis could not trust 100%. Stalin’s Soviet Union was deeply antisemitic. In fact, much of contemporary antisemitism in the West derives its form from Stalinist propaganda. The most common thing Jews said, around the world, in response to the Holocaust was “no one lifted a finger to help us.” It would be a mistake to exaggerate how much the Soviets helped by portraying Pachenko more accurately but still allowing him to stand for the Soviet Union. Instead the film sticks closer to a broader Jewish perception. But historical inaccuracy is just a small part of complaining about a Hollywood that tells rousing stories, one with genuine action heroes.

Unlike other minority groups, the problems with the way Jews have been portrayed in Hollywood don’t stem from a lack of Jewish filmmakers. The problem isn’t to get more Jews behind the lens or at the writers’ table. The problem isn’t even quite a lack of Jewish characters on screens. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem – one more analogous to colonialism than racism. There aren’t very many Jewish characters that are both positive and openly Jewish.

And in order to solve the problem, that is what needs to change.