Edward Zwick’s 2008 World War 2 movie “Defiance” is an intriguing look at the Nazi’s invasion and ultimate occupation of Belarus. As with every other German occupation, the brutality was rampant and the death tolls were high. The Nazi’s stormed through the countryside, destroying villages, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, and shipping hundreds of thousands more to forced labor camps. As expected the Jewish population was hit particularly hard. This is the harsh and troubled setting for Zwick’s film.
“Defiance” is based on the true story of the four Bielski brothers. After their parents are murdered by Nazi sympathizers, the brothers flee to the forest to avoid the German atrocities which are spreading from village to village. While there, they come across fellow Jews who are also seeking refuge. While hesitant at first, the brothers agree to help protect them. In order to survive, they begin making trips into occupied villages where they swipe food and supplies and are assisted by a few sympathetic farmers. The Bielskis also see their numbers grow as more and more Jews came to be under their protection. In a span of over two difficult years, it’s said that over 1,200 Jews were saved by the Bielski’s efforts.
Daniel Craig plays Tuvia, the oldest brother who finds himself the leader of their forest community. At first his perspective is controlled by his desire for revenge. But over time as he connects more with the people under his care, he begins to see things differently. His tough, burly brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) has a different approach which at times causes friction between the two. Craig is an excellent actor and he is very good here. I’ve always liked Liev Schreiber and have felt that due to some of his past roles he is often time underappreciated. He’s also really good here and shares some fantastic scenes with Craig. I also enjoyed Jaime Bell as their younger brother Asael and Mia Wasikowska as young Jewish girl he becomes involved with. The movie also features strong supporting work from Alexa Davalos, Mark Feuerstein, and Allan Corduner.
“Defiance” is a pretty by-the-books production that plays it pretty safe. But that’s not to say its a bad film. In fact, I really liked the movie despite it’s formulaic approach. At it’s core it’s a truly extraordinary and inspiring story with roots in reality that gives it even more punch. Zwick makes it easy to care about his characters and their plight but he also shows some of the Bielski’s more questionable actions. The complexity of their situation goes beyond mere survival in the forest. For example we see the impact of the Soviet Partisans on everything from the Bielski’s forest camp to the relationship between Tuvia and Zus. As the camp population grows, internal fighting and power struggles pop up as supplies begin to run short. There are several other interesting dynamics that Zwick explores well.
Some have argued that the movie’s desire for a broader audience resulted in the inclusion of content that just didn’t belong. In some countries, people took issue with the film’s portrayal of the brothers. They felt they were made to look more heroic than they were and their shady dealings were underplayed. Some accused it of rewriting history while others griped about its use of other languages instead of Belarusian. It’s hard for me take issue with the movie for any of these issues. As with many historical movies, things were added for dramatic effect. Also, I never felt that it was dealing with the material in an irresponsible or half-hearted way. There may be some issues with the overall narrative, but as a whole the movie really worked for me.
“Defiance” is an underappreciated and often times overlooked World War 2 picture. It doesn’t take many risks and it never strays too far from the more conventional survival movie path. But it’s a very well made film that captures the look and tone of the period. It tells a story that many may be unfamiliar with and even with the historical objections of some, I found it to be a testament to the will to live possessed by this group of Jewish refugees. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber are fantastic and their performances drive the film.