The Bielski partisans, named after leader Tuva Bielski and his brothers, formed in early 1942 in a part of Poland that is now western Belarus, made up of Jews who had fled their homes as the Nazis began rounding people up to send to the camps.
Put briefly, the group swelled to about 1,200 people, and gained a reputation for both efficiency and ingenuity in fighting Nazis, and brutality in carrying out sabotage, attacks and assassinations against collaborators. They also collaborated with the Red Army in attacks against German troops.
Polish critics have said the film glosses over the brutality, painting Tuva Bielski as a straightforward action hero, a sort of anti-Nazi Robin Hood.
The criticisms of the film do have some foundation, of course, but this is not a new phenomenon. Films dealing with historical figures will always be contentious, particularly ones that deal with historical figures involved in pivotal conflicts.
When Neil Jordan brought out his biopic of Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins in 1996, he was slated for several reasons: republicans accused him of over-simplification, particularly in his portrayal of Eamon De Valera as a pantomime Iago, a shifty creature whose sole purpose seemed to be to undermine the noble Collins. Unionists and British conservatives accused the film of glamorising the Irish armed struggle, and providing justifications for the modern-day IRA’s actions. Historians slated Jordan for conflating characters, altering fact, and, infamously, including a car-bomb attack on Dublin Castle officials (the technology to make that kind of car bomb simply did not exist at the time, they said).
But did this mean Jordan had made a deceitful or ignorant film? No. Irish commentator Eoghan Harris (who, incidentally, had previously worked on his own Michael Collins film script) remarked that it was not that Jordan knew too little about Irish history, rather he knew too much (having studied Irish history at University College Dublin): and it was this impulse to squeeze as much knowledge, and as much significance, into a very conventional film narrative that had left him open to these criticisms.
Jordan was, of course, also dealing with a contentious issue which still stirs debate – as was Defiance director Edward Zwick. Because of the deep politicisation of history and the stifling of historical debate during the communist era, it is only recently that Poles are beginning to examine their country’s plight during World War II. Citizens of eastern bloc countries, even East Germans, were told that they all had been part of a glorious anti-fascist struggle during the war. It is only since the collapse of the Berlin Wall that this has been openly questioned –– along with the record of the Red Army at the time.
While Zwick’s action film may be an oversimplification (and how can a three-year story squeezed into two-and-a-bit hours not be an oversimplification?), it is also part of a broader, open debate on history that former Warsaw Pact countries must pursue if they are to fully heal.