“Defiance” is the new powerful true story brought to life by the usually very capable filmmaker Edward Zwick (who brought us films like “Glory,” “The Last Samurai,” and “Blood Diamond”). The real-life story is amazing; the film is unfortunately just pretty good.
It tells the story of the Bielski brothers who rather than stay and die by the hands of Nazis, fled with hundreds of war refugees to the Belarussian forests where they fought back and survived till the end of the war, ultimately saving more than 1,200 lives. The film focuses on the brothers Zus (Liev Schrieber) and Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and their relationship as it falls apart and they go separate paths and ultimately reunite again. Zus wants vengeance against the Nazis and goes off to fight with the Russian resistance, while Tuvia tries to help provide for the growing number of Jewish refugees in his forest camp. The film does a good job of showing Zus’ violent tendencies juxtaposed to the other Jews in Tuvia’s camp that are just trying to get back to some sort of normal life. The camp sets up schools and makeshift nursing stations, and there’s even a traditional Jewish wedding; meanwhile Zus finds out more and more that the Russians, although allies, have anti-Semite tendencies as well and view the Jews as expendable soldiers. It is an amazing story that these people survived the harsh winters in a forest with nothing other than what they could borrow or steal from local farmers or gather from the woods. They survived a winter that nearly froze our U.S. troops and they had a fraction of the means to protect them from the cold. Not to mention how many German soldiers they fought off along the way, these simple farmers warded off full brigades of trained soldiers. It’s a story about a few people that had the courage to lead many to survive and a very different perspective than what is usually given on Jews during the Holocaust as helpless victims. It was amazing to see the story of those who fought back.
The story is moving and powerful in itself and the acting from the main characters especially Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber is pretty spot on. So why did I feel while watching this that the true stakes of the situation and emotional turmoil of these characters was never really dug into? I think the problem here lies in a script that scrapes the surface of the events and also feels a bit clunky and repetitive in parts. Once Zus leaves to join the Russians there are several long and drawn-out scenes with Tuvia’s community that build the story, but not always in the most effective way. I almost feel like the filmmakers were so tired of seeing Jews as the victims in WWII films that they didn’t allow us to feel the raw emotions that still existed even amongst all these characters’ strength.
One of the aspects that does work really well are the action set pieces. Each scene has a specific tension and suspense, whether it’s the Bielskis ambushing a German brigade or an incredibly tense scene where bombers unload on their hidden forrest camp. The action in the film doesn’t feel stale or repetitive, the stakes are raised each time violence enters the film and these farmers are forced to defend themselves and fight. I really have no criticism of the action scenes, except that maybe a bit more pacing in-between would have kept the tension building.
The film also explores the issue of violence and revenge. When Tuvia and Zus first start fighting back they are just as brutal towards the Germans as their families were treated. Chasing them down like dogs and shooting them point blank in the head, shooting an SS father and his sons in front of his wife as she begs to be killed too, and other violent atrocities that seem justified because after all it is the Nazis. At some point Tuvia decides that they can’t be animals, that they have to keep their humanity even against such an evil. This point is made, but not as poignantly as it could have been. I think the problem is that too much of the moral dilemma of Tuvia and Zus are stated outright in big speeches or dramatic argument scenes. This is where a dash of subtlety wouldn’t have hurt. I don’t need to be spoon-fed moral messages and I think if the film would have eased off on the gas a bit on the overt dialogue and let the characters just exist the emotions would have hit a deeper core. Zwick directs the film with a simplicity that the story deserves and he doesn’t get in the way of his characters, it’s the script that dips into melodrama and pacing issues that take the steam out of the intensity and emotional build. I appreciate and respect the filmmakers for bringing to light the story of some incredibly brave people in the face of insurmountable odds and find the real story of the Bielski brothers amazing and powerful. It is a pretty good film that is worth seeing but should have been extraordinary given the true story it was based on.
Commentary by Edward Zwick
Defiance: Return to the Forrest- a pretty in-depth 26-minute doc about the making of, covering all aspects from shooting in the real locations to the make-up and costumes, and keeping with the true story
Children of the Otriad- is an incredibly moving 13-minute doc about the descendents of the survivors from this story. It is a really powerful thing to hear how many people were saved and exist now because of a few brave farmers. This feature hits an emotional chord several times that the film only brushes against.
Scoring Defiance- making the music for the film
Bielski Partisan Survivors- Photos taken by Ed Zwick of the real-life remaining survivors