I’m not entirely sure why there is a run on “based on a true story” World War II movies as of late, but the newest of the bunch is Defiance. This one doesn’t delve into an assassination plot to kill Hitler (see Valkyrie for that), nor does it tell the tale of an all black infantry unit stranded in Italy (Miracle at St. Anna for that). Instead, this tells the prolonged tale of the triumph of the soul of 1000+ Polish Jews and their fight to survive in the Belarussian Forest away from the cruel hands of the Nazis.
Leading this harried bunch to safety is the Beilskis brothers — Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Live Schreiber), and to a lesser extent, Asael (Jamie Bell). Tuvia is determined to maintain some semblance of normalcy under the dire conditions while Zus believes the only way to survive is to take the Nazis and their sympathizers to task. It is these diverged paths and the corresponding mindsets of all involved that director Edward Zwick focuses his attention upon with varying levels of success.
The bulk of the spotlight is afforded to Tuvia, as he is the most conflicted of the lot. Craig does an impressive job hanging up his James Bond duds to tackle the role of the reluctant leader. On one hand he’s a man who wants and seeks revenge for the murder of his family and on the other he insists on not sinking to the level of his people’s enemies. It is a fine line that, in a similar situation, I doubt I would have been able to walk. But he does it, going so far as to shoot dead a man who dared to challenge his insistence that the ragtag community maintain order and civility.
180-degress from Tuvia is bigger brother Zus. Casting Schreiber as this big, angry Jewish guy with a conscious probably couldn’t have been done any better. Angered that his brother is taking on more and more refugees at their makeshift camp (they could barely feed themselves), he leaves in disgust to fight with a band of Russian fighters hiding in the same forest. They give him satisfaction for the Nazi blood he craves but he soon realizes he’s in bed with bigots nearly as bad as the Germans. This leads to a cathartic moment that appears to be made just for the movies — I couldn’t believe it actually transpired as told.
Actually I questioned whether much of what I saw in Defiance played out in quite the same way in real life as in the way Zwick tells it. The film, based off of the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec, surely takes a great many creative liberties. There is a Moses like moment that elevates Asael to messiah-like status. Bullets and bombs seem to miss anyone with any importance to the plot, just like a G.I. Joe cartoon (okay, someone does get shot in the arm, but c’mon — it’s the arm, not a vital organ!).
But at least there was a fair amount of raw action — something rather unexpected for a film about Holocaust survivors. It’s needed too because if it wasn’t interspersed now and again throughout the film, I fear the movie would have been reduced to nothing more than one about a community of people living in the woods. The fighting was a stark reminder as to the seriousness of what was going on at the time.
Defiance also that takes a hard look at and questions whether “an eye for an eye” or “turning the other cheek” is the proper way to respond to humiliation, degradation and murder. Ultimately, you can draw your own conclusions but I believe the Beilskis’ have shown that both beliefs, used in conjunction with one another (i.e., use force only when absolutely necessary), is probably the best course of action. It is a lesson some could stand to learn this day.