Director : Edward Zwick
Screenplay : Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick (based on the book Defiance The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Daniel Craig (Tuvia Bielski), Liev Schreiber (Zus Bielski), Jamie Bell (Asael Bielski), Alexa Davalos (Lilka Ticktin), Allan Corduner (Shamon Haretz), Mark Feuerstein (Isaac Malbin), Tomas Arana (Ben Zion Gulkowitz), Jodhi May (Tamara Skidelsky), Kate Fahy (Riva Reich), Iddo Goldberg (Yitzchak Shulman), Iben Hjejle (Bella), Martin Hancock (Peretz Shorshaty), George MacKay (Aron Bielski)
Defiance is being billed as the greatest story about World War II that you’ve never heard of, which is probably true despite the fact that there have already been two books and a History Channel documentary about the subject. The story of the Bielski brothers, Jewish farmers who were living in Belorussia when the Germans invaded, and the forest village they started that saved them and 1,200 other Jews from the Holocaust, is a rousing story indeed, one part action-adventure tale and one part social fable. Thus, it is not surprising that it drew the attention of director Edward Zwick, whose previous films, including Glory (1989), The Last Samurai (2004), and Blood Diamond (2006), have moored (not always successfully) their spectacle thrills on sturdy moral underpinnings and heady themes about family, honor, and sacrifice. No theme is too big for Zwick’s canvas, and Defiance fits right into his mold of the alternately exciting and didactic.
The story begins with the Nazi invasion of Belorussia in 1941, which lies just beneath Lithuania and was then a part of the Soviet Union. The four Bielski brothers--Tuvia (Daniel Craig), who is the oldest and therefore the leader; Zus (Live Schreiber), who is more hot-tempered and eager; Asael (Jamie Bell), who is essentially the peace-maker; and Aron (George MacKay), who is still a child--escape into the surrounding forest after their parents are murdered by the invading Germans and the Belorussian policemen who gleefully act as their stooges (the first of many suggestions that Russian anti-Semitism was not imported by the Nazis, but rather enflamed). The brothers set up camp in the forest, which they know well, originally intending to focus on their own survival.
However, they soon find themselves taking in other Jews who have sought refuge in the wilderness, and the community quickly grows until it is a self-sustaining village in which everyone plays a role and shoulders some responsibility. This is not to say that all goes smoothly. There is plenty of disagreement and infighting, most notably between Tuvia and Zus, whose ideological conflict is rooted in Tuvia’s impulse to save as many Jews as possible and Zus’s impulse to kill as many Germans as possible. Tuvia sees salvation in the mere act of survival, which for him is the ultimate form of defiance. Zus, on the other hand, seeks vengeance and argues that the only path to freedom is through violence, which he eventually seeks out by leaving the community and joining a group of Russian partisans. While this seems like a simple dichotomy, it is complicated by the fact that Tuvia has already succumbed to the desire for vengeance by gunning down the policemen who killed his family while Zus finds that the anti-Semitic drive of the Nazis is also present in the Russian partisans whom he calls “comrade.”
The screenplay by Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick, which was derived from a book by Nechama Tec, plays somewhat fast and loose with the basic facts, but successfully embodies the larger themes, which are clearly spelled out in both dialogue and action. Shot on location in Lithuania, the film has a dense texture and a realistic feel that cuts straight to the bone, particularly during the brutal winters when the Bielski community is barely holding on to life. There isn’t an idea that doesn’t get its own fully formed moment, whether it be the inevitable physical brawl between Tuvia and Zus or a philosophical debate between a schoolteacher and a self-styled intellectual about the nature of community. Zwick is everything but subtle, but with this material his approach works. It’s such a big, sprawling, unbelievable-if-it-weren’t-true tale that it demands scale both physical and thematic.
Zwick has helpfully scaled back the Hollywoodized sound and fury that made Blood Diamond feel so disingenuous, even if he can’t help casting a raid on a Nazi-run police station in bleary slow motion and concluding the film with a massive battle and last-minute rescue. One of the film’s primary moral conundrums revolves around the necessity of violence in the face of violence, and Zwick doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality needed to maintain order in the Bielski community, which would seem to contradict Tuvia’s proclamation that they will not become animals even if they are treated as such. Yet, it is precisely in such contradictions that the film finds its richest moments, simultaneously encouraging us to cheer in the aisles while also recognizing the disquiet that must accompany any moment of violence, not matter how seemingly righteous.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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