Most viewers go into a Holocaust-themed film expecting to see a group of Jews sent complacently into ghettos or death camps, where they survive trials of the body and soul only to triumph in spirit over their oppressors. Now, as the many Holocaust-themed films of the past year have shown, viewers can also appreciate stories about the Nazi with the heart of gold — the Germans who were trapped into joining the radical party but really were disgusted by (or ignorant of) the atrocities Hitler and his government were committing.
“Defiance” (2008) breaks both of these paradigms. The film is about Jews, but they are a far cry from those typically shown in cinema. While most Jews across Europe ignored the rumors about the German Final Solution, the three Bielski brothers (played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell) escaped into the Belarusian forest and helped hundreds of other Jews to do the same. The brothers sought vengeance against the German Nazis and the local officers who slaughtered their family and friends. Yet, as the eldest Bielski is quick to point out, the group’s true revenge is merely surviving.
The most rewarding aspect of “Defiance” is the catharsis it provides for the viewer. In most other Holocaust stories, hindsight makes us exceedingly frustrated. Why do the Jews do nothing? Why don’t they fight back? The Bielskis are the Jews we wish existed in all the stories, in all the cities and all the camps. The brothers’ fear of the Nazis and faith in God propelled them to do something. Their story is almost a fairytale, but the kicker is that it is true.
Jewish resistance is obviously not the first aspect of the Holocaust that comes to mind for American audiences. However, there was significant armed resistance against the Nazis across occupied Poland and the Soviet Union. The Bielski Otriad, or partisan detachment, was one of the most venerable elements of the Jewish resistance. While they did act with force on many occasions, their legacy was an emphasis on community. By cultivating a safe haven within the forests, more than 1,200 Jews survived the war.
In spite of its historical themes, “Defiance” is an action movie. From Edward Zwick, the director of such defining war movies as “Glory” (1989) and “The Last Samurai” (2003), the film is a technical beauty. The special effects, sound mixing and general blocking of the battle scenes are exquisite. Zwick does not gloss over the sacrifices of war; the characters get dirty, go hungry and get killed. These hardships bring a semblance of reality to an otherwise hard-to-believe story.
The tense action sequences also work to even out the pacing of the film, which tends to drag during the disappointing character-driven segments. The viewer roots for the Bielski clan, but he isn’t emotionally attached or interested in the film’s characters. Tuvia (Craig) is the de facto leader, literally riding around on his white horse as the group’s savior. Asael (Bell) is his deputy, which the viewer realizes only after the character is finally given personality halfway through the film.
The final brother, Zus (Schreiber), is arguably the only one with any depth. He is not an unrelenting beacon of hope, as Tuvia seems to be, but is instead bitter and pragmatic about the situation and the chances of survival. Zus competes with his brothers for power and makes no apologies for his belief that war is the time for offense, not defense.
Serving as a counterpoint to the fighters are the intellectual Jews, the so-called malbushim. These characters offer an interesting perspective on the differences between violent partisans like the Bielskis and the non-resistant Jews that are more commonly discussed in the pages of history.
In “Defiance,” the only thing that separates the two groups is the resources each possesses. Many Jews had enough social capital or financial clout to doubt that the Nazis could seriously threaten them. On the other hand, the Bielskis were poor, uneducated farmers, armed only with the knowledge of the forest. Neither group was more passive or active than the other. The intellectuals believed their ability to be diplomatic would ensure survival, while partisans trusted in their survival instincts.
While the brothers’ story of resistance is not wholly unique, it is exciting in the face of more common historical narratives that tell of Jews being shipped off to Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Bielskis fought back in the only way they knew how, and for their bravery, generations are proud.
Starring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell
Directed by Edward Zwick