Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Blog

Resistance in Film

For this edition of the Ambassador Newsletter, our Reviews Team reflected on the range of ways in which resistance during the Holocaust has been depicted and explored through film.

Defiance (2008)

Available on Netflix

Resistance takes courage and willpower to go against the norm and fight for something you believe in or even fight for your survival. ‘Defiance’ encompasses all of this. The film is based on the true story of the Bielski Partisans in Belarus and highlights the bravery of the four Jewish Bielski brothers, who protected more than 1,000 other Jewish people by hiding in the forest for more than two years.

The story is different to traditional Holocaust films and provides an alternative view on the fight for survival. Their overall fight is against the Nazis and their collaborators, but the film also explores the conflicts that the characters experience, both within themselves, between each other and everything around them. Alongside the fear of being discovered, the group suffered through freezing winter temperatures and lack of food, but they continued to survive and resist together. Their Jewish faith and shared experiences created a unity in the forest, where they joined together to fight for their survival.

Side-by-side photographs of Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber Daniel Craig (L) and Liev Schreiber (R) play Tuvia and Zus Bielski in the film
Picture on left by Georges Biard - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Picture on right by Gage Skidmore - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

By Aiyesha Swarnn

The Photographer of Mauthausen (2018)

Available on Netflix

The ‘The Photographer of Mauthausen’ tells the true story of photographer Francisco Boix who was imprisoned in the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. When an SS Officer brought his passion for photography into the camp and documented the horrific events happening on a daily basis, Francisco and his fellow prisoners knew they must be preserved. Before they could be destroyed, the prisoners started to collect random samples of the photograph negatives, with the hope they could protect the evidence and one day expose the truth. They created hiding spaces, strapped negatives to their bodies and even attempted to transport them out of the camp in hope the rest of the world would be exposed to the atrocities being perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators. These photos were eventually used at the Nuremberg and Dachau trials as evidence to prosecute Nazi war criminals.

This film provides an admirable example of resistance and shows that no matter what efforts are made, the truth will come out.

One of the photos taken by Francisco Boix, the photographer of Mauthausen circa 1942. The picture shows the construction of one of Mauthausen concentration camp’s sub camps - Gusen I.
Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

By Charlotte Heard

The Pianist (2002)

Available on Netflix

Plaque commemorating Władysław Szpilman
Photo by Jolanta Dyr - Photo by Jolanta Dyr - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’ is a haunting reminder of the devastation of the Holocaust, but also of the remarkable resistance of Polish musician, Władysław Szpilman. Drawing upon Szpilman’s memoirs and Polanski’s own experiences of visiting the Warsaw ghetto, this film explores a deeply personal, poignant example of Holocaust survival. Adrien Brody’s dedication to the role of Szpilman is palpable throughout, delivering it with clear compassion and respect for all victims, but particularly emphasising his courage. His portrayal of Szpilman’s desperation to survive, despite incessant physical and emotional torment, provides a less conventional example of resistance; a testament to his sheer fortitude and determination.

Old friends and colleagues assist Szpilman, rescuing him from deportation to Treblinka, guiding him out of the ghetto, and hiding him in their homes. Still, Polanski never draws focus away from Szpilman’s paramount form of resistance, with these encounters being reinforcements to it, rather than supplements for. Behind the utmost tragedy of this film, Polanski creates a sense of hope, and, ultimately, an admiration for Szpilman’s perseverance to simply exist.

By Maddie John

Escape from Sobibor (1987)

Available free on YouTube

2018 version availalbe on Amazon Prime Video

Sobibor, located in occupied-Poland, was home to one of three Nazi extermination camps. It is estimated that of the estimated 250,000 inmates that arrived during its operation, and around 170,000 were gassed upon arrival. Those that were spared usually had skills that could be utilised in camp labour. For example, seamstresses, tailors, goldsmiths, and shoemakers. Alternatively, prisoners would be chosen to assist in the day-to-day running of the camp, like sorting belongings of other prisoners, cooking and cleaning.

On 14th October 1943, around 300 of the 600 inmates at Sobibor succeeded in killing 11 German SS officers (and several other guards) before escaping into the surrounding woods. This act of resistance followed a similar attempt at the Treblinka extermination camp in August of the same year.

Both the 1987 and 2018 versions of the film capture the motivations for this uprising in different ways, by centering on the stories of different people. One of the most poignant in the 2018 film is the focus on the young Szlomo. Szlomo, or Stanislaw Szmajner, was only 16 years old when he entered the camp and, in the film, is unaware that his family has been murdered in the gas chambers, until the truth is revealed in a message from a friend. This realization then motivates Szlomo to join the revolt and shoot a tower guard as well as kill the Chief Kapo, as part of the effort to escape. Ultimately, he showcases how anger and grief became strong motivators for resistance during the Holocaust.

The films help us to understand what life within the extermination camps may have been like for the few that escaped immediate death, and the sheer courage that resistance against the Nazis and their collaborators took.

Surviving members of the Sobibor Uprising.
Picture by Azymut (Rafał M. Socha) (crop of the subject area by User:Poeticbent), cropped - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

By Emily Farley