When I saw Ed Zwick's underwhelming WWII drama Defiance at the end of last year, I was intrigued by the underlying story and saddened that it had been brought to life with such schmaltzy and obvious strokes. I felt like there was more to be known, a deeper truth to the Bielski Brothers that would be far more interesting than what Zwick put on the screen. With this in mind, I looked to The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods, a program made for the History Channel in 2006. Though the 47-minute documentary does gets a little closer to an account presented without a dramatist's varnish, it still seems like only part of the tale is touched on.
The Bielski boys were three Jewish sons of a family living in Belorussia when the Germans invaded in 1941. Determined to survive, the trio--Tuvia, Zus, and Asael--established a roaming camp in the forests that became a safe haven for Jews on the run. They built a mini community and worked with Russian soldiers to stage daring raids on German forces, often crippling the supply chain that would have given the Nazis much needed replenishment on the front lines. Three years later, as WWII finally came to a close, the ranks of the Bielski camp had swelled to over 1,200. They accepted young and old alike, and many families exist to this day only because of their efforts.
The Bielski Brothers is put together using a standard television documentary format: talking heads combined with photographs and pertinent archival footage. The interview subjects are either survivors who spent the war in the forest with the Bielskies or their direct descendents. The family itself is represented in both categories, with participants that include Aron Bielski, youngest brother in the Bielski clan and part of the camp effort; Asael's daughter Assaela; Tuvia's son Mickey; and Zus' boys, Zui and Jay. There is also a brief snippet of an interview with Tuvia from the 1980s. This is the story told by the people who were there, and thus it becomes theirs. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means we get much more about the workings of the camp, how people came to join, and the perils that marked the road to survival. This means that Tuvia, Zus, and Asael become sidelines in their own documentary, figures on the periphery of the human drama that end up portrayed more as super beings than human ones in the telling.
I think the problem here is that, when turned into a war picture like Defiance, the history is under the sway of filmic convention; in a short piece like The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods, the director is driven by the material at hand and limited to the space he's been allotted. (Dean Ward wrote, produced, edited, and directed the program.) Given the sprawling narrative that came out of the Bielski shelter, there is no way to contain it all and still work in the scheduled commercial breaks. It practically needs two documentaries, one specifically about the brothers and one about the camp and the people who followed them. Trying to stuff both into this one means we only just skim the surface, and I still want to go deeper.
The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods is shown in a widescreen, non-anamorphic transfer that is of excellent quality in terms of color contrast and clarity of picture. A fairly recent television production, it's up to current standards of what we might expect in terms of cable broadcasts. The picture does suffer from some interlacing problems on DVD, however, so expect some minor combing in the image.
The stereo mix is very good. No glitches, excellent clarity.
Rent It. The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods is a very good documentary about the heroic efforts of a trio of Jewish siblings to create a safe haven for the victims of Nazi cruelty in Belorussia in WWII. It is, however, very short. At a mere 47 minutes, the filmmakers barely have enough time to cover the camp and how it managed to stay together for the duration of the war, and so the leaders of the community are still somewhat of an enigma. A good start, but it seems one must still look elsewhere for a more detailed portrait of the Bielskies.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.