I love a good World War 2 movie. The problem is we’ve heard so many of the stories from that war. Well now Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Glory) and Daniel Craig (James Bond) are telling us one we haven’t heard before about the Bielski Partisans, Polish Jews who fought back against the Germans and saved 1200 people by camping in the forest. It’s an amazing tale and makes you wonder if the city folk of the ghettos were as well armed as their country cousins, if they could have fought back the onslaught of Hitler’s blitzkrieg. But that’s something for writers of Alternative History fantasy books and nerds rolling dice in their basements to decide.
Defiance is the tale of Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brothers, who come home to find their mother and father murdered by German soldiers. When they find out that a local constable has been pointing out the Jews for the invading Germans, Tuvia takes a pistol and goes to the man’s house for revenge. From then on they are fugitives, hiding with friendlies and making quick raids for food and to kill soldiers when they can. But other Jews who escaped the trains to the camps begin to find them. Not all can fight. And those aiding them are murdered. So Tuvia and his brothers Zus (Liev Schrieber), Asael and Aron take to the woods with them.
The forests are deep. They begin with simple lean-tos, but eventually have a huge camp with small cabins, soup lines, and scheduled food raids. The locals don’t take too kindly to being raided, and Tuvia tries to spread the pain around so no one suffers too much. Some give freely, but others need the persuasion of gunpoint. Survival is survival; the thefts are not glossed over. The camp grows and grows, and everyone brings sad news of towns emptied of Jews- either killed or herded to the trains. Zus wants to be true partisans, to fight the Germans, but Tuvia would rather “save one old Jewish woman than kill ten Germans.” And this brings the film its only real conflict.
This is what gives the film a bit of depth, because when your enemy is the Nazis, there is little ambiguity. Instead, we get to think about whether it is more noble to save the innocent, or fight evil. In the end we need to do both, but it is not always an easy choice. The movie does not dwell too long on these tough choices, but does not ignore them. It is not an easy task for Tuvia to lead his people. Some fight, and all work. The fighters want a bigger share of their meager meals. They bring a German soldier prisoner, and Tuvia’s declaration that they will not behave as animals is put to the test.
But in the end this is a war movie, and the action is excellent. As partisans they fight with ambushes and guerrilla tactics, and Zwick does not gloss over the violence. A car full of German officers and their dates are ambushed on the way to a party. There is no hesitation. The Jewish women fight as well, for guns are the great equalizer; and they die, in numbers, without sentiment. They are women fighting for their lives, not Ewoks. Their lives and honor are just as important as the men’s. Zus fights with the Russian partisans and learns that “comrade” be damned, they have no love of Jews either; Stalin’s “socialist principles” are only enforced when it serves the right purposes.
I enjoyed Defiance, but like Zwick’s other epic films- Legends of the Fall, Glory, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond it has an old-fashioned Hollywood quality with broad appeal and background characters drawn in stereotype. The smaller characters seem like functions of the plot and filler for color- we have an apolitical teacher and an intellectual hashing out whether Stalin will be any better than Hitler, which is ironic to us with 20/20 hindsight. The women and younger brothers fade into the landscape. The women take up with the men without the usual courtship and call themselves “forest wives,” but most of them blend in with the trees. But like Glory, Zwick once again tells us a tale we did not know before, and puts a face to history. He does a fine job, and made another memorable film here.
3.5 Schmeissers out of 5