REVIEW: Defiance [2008]

“We should have killed the milkman”

A World War II film showing the Jews fighting against the Nazis? It seems like something that is so obvious a topic to portray yet I don’t think it has been done. We’ve been shown Jews surviving, staying strong and getting through the years through help from the resistance, compromising their values to stay alive, or just sheer good luck. With Edward Zwick’s newest wartime epic—the man is a pro at them ever since Glory—titled Defiance we get the unthinkable. Here is a ragtag group of Belarusian Jews running for their lives and hiding in the forest; pulled together into a community of survival by three brothers with the name Bielski. Say what you will about the Americans or the Brits or any other trained army that came in to fight against the tyranny and brutality of Hitler and his SS, these men and women, these intellectuals and poor working class people are true heroes. Looking at the person next to them, knowing it was they whom they fought for, these escapees of the slaughtered masses decided to stand up against evil, to take their lives in their own hands. The Bielskis had no formal training other than the will to not become animals like the Germans so desperately tried to make them. They fought for humanity and made their own survival each day their revenge.

We are thrust into the story right from the get-go. Zus and Asael Bielski are out when they hear the SS on their capturing/murdering assignment. Rushing home, they soon discover the dead bodies of their father and neighbors. Inside their barn, hidden under wooden slats, lies their youngest brother Aron, shaken and muted from the atrocities he had witnessed, but he is alive and the brothers are thankful for that. The three go into the woods, a terrain they know well, a forest refuge the Germans know nothing about, and are stumbled upon the next day by eldest sibling Tuvia. It soon becomes a mission of survival, of finding food and weapons to stay safe and to protect the numerous refugees that eventually come their way. Tuvia knows that there is not enough food for everyone, but he can’t turn his back on his own people, to send them to the ghettos for what was inevitably death. However, he and second oldest Zus soon take different sides on how to save their lives. Both men have a bloodlust for revenge—retribution for what happened to their family, but also for what has happened to their people—yet while one reconciles those feelings into survival, the other wants aggressive intervention, to fight on the front lines with the Russians and take out as many Germans as he can.

This dynamic helps to add another layer to the tale besides just a Jewish versus Nazi opposition. Although they are on the same side, Daniel Craig’s Tuvia is a realist knowing that revenge won’t bring any of the dead back. He is too preoccupied with keeping the hundreds now under his care safe and alive and hidden from the enemy. Liev Schreiber’s Zus, on-the-other-hand, cannot forget his need to destroy those men that destroyed his life. Some say that he cannot turn into them, he can’t become a monster, but he may be correct in countering with the statement that he won’t, yet that doesn’t mean he can’t kill like them. A father, a wife, a child … all taken from him by the Germans; you can’t help but understand his point of view and want him to get whatever retribution he can. Because honestly, every German he kills means one less that can hurt the people his brother is now trying to protect.

As for the story itself, it all transpires rather nicely, keeping your interest and including enough tension and conflict to never bore. When there aren’t Germans to fight there are greedy members of their own camp to put down. At one point Tuvia falls ill for a spell and it appears as though his power and platform of equality is in jeopardy. A hungry soldier attempts a coup, twice, and takes the usually understanding Bielski brother to his breaking point. Asael told him the first time that Zus would have stopped the dissenter without hesitation. It may take Tuvia longer to reach that mindset, throwing forgiveness out the window, but he is not afraid to. Along with this strife in the Otriad camp comes the anti-Semitism in the Russian Partisan camp, men fighting alongside one another, Zus being their strongest fighter, yet the Jews still get beaten up when using a Russian’s latrine. Zus joined them to fight for their cause, for his cause, but even amongst allies he cannot escape the bigotry and racism that has brought their continent into such turmoil.

Zwick knows how to shoot true stories in a way to capture interest. While he may not be flashy or stylish, he composes some solid films that help teach a little lesser-known history while also telling a story worth watching. There are a couple moments of beauty; a nicely edited sequence in the fluttering snow, juxtaposing Asael’s wedding with an ambush by the Partisans for instance, (ruined only slightly by the heavy-handed score), but for the most part everything is shot in an economy of plot, showing what is necessary to continue the tale to its conclusion. The real strength here is in the casting. Many roles are inspired choices indeed. I enjoyed seeing Baz Luhrmann regular Jacek Koman in a small role, as well as Mark Feuerstein in a nice part, adding a little political discourse to the proceedings as he debates with the Bielskis’ old teacher. However, it is the brothers that truly shine. Jamie Bell goes through a transformation from scared and sad boy who’s life is turned upside-down to a man fit to lead an army, one that can inspire even his older brother, a man who has been leading them all since the beginning. And as for Craig and Schreiber, it is a total mismatch of the usual roles they get. Whereas Craig generally plays the Bond-types, unsentimental killers with a stone face, Schreiber is most known for his intellectual, even-keeled characters. With Defiance, though, they defy those types and play what any other director would have had the other do. It is an interesting choice that definitely pays off, for both shine here and carry the film successfully on their shoulders.

Defiance 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Jamie Bell as “Asael Bielski” and Liev Schreiber as “Zus Bielski” star in DEFIANCE. Photo by Karen Ballard
[2] Daniel Craig as “Tuvia Bielski” stars in DEFIANCE, a Paramount Vantage release.
Photo by Karen Ballard
(c) 2008 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a Division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES. All Rights Reserved.


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