New films explore unfamiliar parts of Holocaust

At the end of a recent screening of “Defiance,” the new Edward Zwick film about three brothers who led Jewish partisans to fight the Nazis in the forests of Belarus during World War II, an elderly man in the audience shouted out a familiar refrain:

“Never again!” he cried.

The outburst underscored the mood in a theater full of real-life surviving partisans and their many descendants, capturing the somber message at the heart of so many films about the Holocaust, from “Shoah” to “Schindler’s List.” Yet “Defiance” also offers viewers a more unusual and even uplifting opportunity: a chance to see tough Jews with submachine guns mow down their Nazis persecutors.

The film is one of a rush of new dramas that seek to shed light on lesser-known episodes of World War II and the Holocaust, including “Valkyrie,” in which Tom Cruise plays a patriotic German general at the center of a plot to kill Hitler, and “The Reader,” a fictional tale of a young man in postwar Berlin who falls in love with a woman, played by Kate Winslet, only to later learn of her dark past at a war-crimes trial.

With a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar, history and fiction, these movies vary from action epics to intimate tales of families and lovers. Their characters alternatively are full of bravery, beset by betrayal and imprisoned by memory.

Annette Insdorf, a film professor at Columbia U. and author of the book “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,” says this year’s offerings show how subgenres have grown out of what she refers to as “Holocaust cinema.” These films, she says, include “resistance” movies along the lines of “Defiance” and “Valkyrie,” and “ghost stories” that depict characters haunted by Holocaust legacies, such as “Adam Resurrected” and the French-language “A Secret.”

For many moviegoers, the feats of the Bielski brothers in “Defiance,” which is based on the book by Nechama Tec and stars Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, will come as a surprise. Zwick, who first learned about the exploits of the Bielski brothers and their followers by reading a newspaper obituary, explained at one of the film’s New York screenings that the Bielski partisans and their descendants had told him about their fears that the “iconography of victimization” is all the world would know about the Holocaust.

In this regard, Zwick wanted to make sure that the partisans’ heroic resistance would not be forgotten. In effect, the film provides a counternarrative to the usual story of Jews as passive Holocaust victims.

Likewise, “Valkyrie,” though packaged as a slick thriller, carries the underlying message that not all German leaders were evil and that resistance to Hitler was both real and possible. As one character explains in the film’s trailer: “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him.” The real-life plot to kill Hitler, previously told in a television movie and in William Shirer’s magisterial tome “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” may seem an odd fit for a popcorn blockbuster, but the story remains a fascinating footnote to history.

In contrast to the historical films, “The Reader,” “Adam Resurrected” and “The Secret” all focus on more internal terrain, exploring the psyches and societies of the post-Holocaust world. The films deal with trauma, the inescapable grip of the past and the complex — if inevitably incomplete — process of trying to reconcile oneself to it.

At one point in “The Reader,” based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, a seemingly ordinary woman serving a prison sentence for her terrible wartime actions, remarks, with no particular sign of remorse: “It doesn’t matter what I think. The dead are still dead.”

Without providing easy answers, the films show how we come to live with painful knowledge and how our secrets continue to live in us. And, as Insdorf notes, they present fresh perspectives on familiar themes of transcendence, indifference, guilt and heroism.

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