Defiance: A fascinating World War II story, a not-so-fascinating film

Movie directed by Edward Zwick falls well short of its potential

by Anne Kirby

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Daniel Craig, center, plays Tuvia Bielski, who becomes the leader of an unlikely Jewish resistance movement against the Nazis as portrayed in the movie "Defiance."

By Anne Kirby

Defiance" is a World War II film directed by Edward Zwick, whose previous work includes "Glory," "Legends of the Fall" and "Blood Diamond." The movie is set in the eastern region of Poland (now known as Belarus), an area invaded by German soldiers in 1941 who occupied the land for years.

A story with this kind of power, drama and leadership has the makings of an spectacular epic film. "Defiance," however, disappointingly falls short of its potential.

The film is adapted from Nechama Tec's 1993 book, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. Tec's true story describes the Jewish Resistance movement that was started by four Polish brothers, the Bielskis.

Retreating into the woods, these men became guerillas who opposed the German occupation of their land and saved more than a thousand Jewish people from certain death at the hands of Nazi soldiers.

The Bielski Resistance is a strong and dramatic survival story. The Jews sacrificed and suffered as they faced sickness, starvation, constant hiding, and extremes of weather while moving from camp to camp to avoid German attacks.

A story with this kind of power, drama and leadership has the makings of a spectacular epic film. "Defiance," however, disappointingly falls short of its potential.

Zwick takes the wrong approach

Instead of lighting a bonfire of a film with a torch, Zwick rubbed sticks together. His resulting film is good, but could have been so much better.

Zwick mistakenly confronts the Bielski Resistance story head-on and like a documentary. Without the sort of imagination and character development the film needed to reach emotional high notes, Zwick controlled the film with the painstaking discipline of an elementary school nun.

The focal point of the film is the relationship between the two older Bielski brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber.) The younger brothers Azael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay) have minor supporting roles.

After the brutal slayings of their parents, Zus and Tuvia leave their wives and homes behind as they seek revenge on the local police chief who, under orders from Nazi soldiers, killed their parents.

Descendants number in thousands

In the final film credits, we discover that these same refugees built managed to organize another resistance settlement that not only contained living quarters but a hospital as well.
During their total three years of survival, records state that only 50 of their people were lost.All told some 1,200 Jews survived and today their offspring is 10,000 people strong.
This is an amazing tribute to the people who together survived the Nazi invasion through their mind, spirit and faith through one of the largest recorded Jewish Resistance groups in World War II.

With raw and animal-like instincts, the brothers also set out with a vengeance to slay Nazi soldiers.

Retreating into a makeshift hide-out in the forest, the men begin rebuilding their lives. They survive through raiding farms while procuring guns, ammunition, liquor and cigarettes from the bodies of dead Nazi soldiers whom they track and kill.

At first the Bieslki resistance is loosely organized through the efforts of hard-working local Jewish intelligentsia and refugees whose offensive tactics consist of surprise raids on Nazi soldiers.

As the Bielski resistance grows, the brothers seek defensive tactics through their decision to make alliances with nearby Russian partisans.

As word about the Bielski Resistance spreads, hundreds of bewildered Jews wander into the crowded camp seeking shelter, sustenance and protection.

With the ongoing growth, tension begins to rise between Zus and Tuvia. They become rivals who bicker over whether or not to continue the immense responsibilities of feeding and sheltering a growing refuge population while managing a resistance movement.

In an emotionally jarring scene, reminiscent of the angry, biblical fight between Cain and Abel,  Zus and Tuvia viciously clash, attacking one another, in a power struggle that the refugees witness.

Tuvia falls seconds short of killing Zus with a rock, and the two disperse. Tuvia becomes the people's choice and reluctant leader, while Zus decamps to join the Soviet Army unit also operating behind German lines.

Tuvia begins to organize the camp into a larger settlement, but soon becomes frustrated and confused over his leadership, when he discovers that the refugees in camp view him either as a modern-day Moses or a overpowering tyrant.

Zus departs, plot weakens

Without the edifying strength and comraderie of Zus, whose performance provides substance, structure and balance,  the film is soon upstaged by Tuvia.

As a leader, Tuvia comes off as strong and decisive. But, he also comes off stereotypically with a James Bond kind of heroic resilience where he becomes unbridled, intensely romantic and charming, oozing a palpable sensuality that is enhanced by his rugged leather jacket overlain with a shouldered rifle. The performance steals the show.

This positioning of Tuvia transforms the film's story. The plot begins to weaken, loosing some of  its momentum. Known to use Hollywood theatrics, Zwick counters the loss of Zus throwing in a series of vignettes, like random ingredients in a gourmet recipe. They serve little purpose other than to compromise the film's integrity.

Zwick counters the loss of Zus by throwing in a series of vignettes, like random ingredients in a recipe. They serve little purpose other than to compromise the film's integrity.

Rather than portray poignant, day-to-day scenes with contextual information from real-life characters with emotions, interests, values, and the backgrounds of Jews from all walks of life, Zwick intersperses groups of refuges who appear to be more fascinated with incoming lines of refuges, soup, morsels of bread or the antics of a stupid bully taunting other Jews, rather than their own idiosyncratic struggles to survive uncertain futures.

And with typical Hollywod flair and sentimentality, Tuvia all too coincidentally wins the heart of the camp's most beautiful female offering.

Amidst the flair there is, however, a touching scene where Tuvia and his lover, played by Alexa Davalos, romantically embrace, wrapped warmly in a cocoon of blankets and animal skins. 

Ironically this is one of the few scenes where Zwick takes us inside a camp hut to witness any kind of individual or family interaction such as Tuvia and his "forest-wife" who share love as protection and escape.

Momentum and emotion pick up when soon afterward a German air attack swoops down upon the settlement pummeling fleeing refugees with fierce, exploding bombs.  Going deeper into the woods, they re-establish their the settlement once more.  

In a final climactic battle scene,  Zus and a Soviet unit rescue Tuvia and his Jewish resistance soldiers battling a small, yet powerful, troop of Nazi soldiers.  It is their toughest battle to date.

However, in this scene Zus and Tuvia — once separated through anger — become resolved as brothers.  Their departure carries the film to its natural ending.  Graphicallyand powerfully shot using forest greens and warm browns,  we view the refugees heading back into the thick, Belorussian woods forest where they boldly survive another two years until liberation.

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 Daniel Craig, left, and Liev Schreiber play two brothers who start a Jewish resistance movement in "Defiance."

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