The film is a story of survival and courage that just happens to be set during one of the darkest times in history.
While Defiance is set during the height of World War II and focuses on Jews fleeing the German army, it would be inaccurate to label it a Holocaust picture, since many of the characters don’t even believe that the death camps exist. They naively assume that the ghettos are as bad as it is going to get for them, and it is that way of life from which they are trying to escape. The film, which is based on true events, is therefore a story of survival and courage that just happens to be set during one of the darkest times in history.
The film, set in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1941, begins as the Jews of a small village are either being massacred needlessly or are being sent to the German labor camps. After finding out their parents were murdered, Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell) manage to escape the Nazis and hide in the dense forest surrounding the village. They are joined by their older brother, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), and together the three make it their mission to stay alive as long as possible in hopes of surviving the war. It is clear from the beginning that Tuvia and Zus have competed their entire lives, and as the brothers begin to attract more and more fellow Jews who have taken to hiding out in the forest, their rivalry comes back full force.
The Bielski name slowly begins to reach the ears of all those trying to avoid capture and the camp the brothers have set up begins to grow. While Tuvia is unable to turn anyone away, Zus knows they will not be able to feed and care for everyone who has sought them out. Eventually, the paths of the two elder brothers split as Tuvia stays with the camp and Zus joins the Russian resistance army in hopes of weakening the German forces. Tuvia must then lead the camp alone, which becomes more difficult as winter approaches and people’s faith wanes.
The only weak link of the film is the star, Craig, who plays Tuvia with so much intensity that he lets his British accent slip repeatedly as he searches for a Braveheart-esque monologue that will elevate his performance in the minds of the audience.
The film’s true heart comes from Schreiber and Bell. Schreiber carries so much anger and hatred toward anything he can’t control that he almost looks like an animal just waiting for the chance to attack. Watch him closely: Much of the time he either sets himself apart from the rest of the camp or is pacing back and forth on the periphery of what is going on. He is the brother who acts first and thinks second.
Bell, however, steals the film as his character transitions from being the weak younger brother to the most hardened and determined of them all. Many people will remember him as the twinkle-toed dancer in Billy Elliot, but here Bell shows how far he has come and his ability to control a scene with the sheer magnetism he exudes.
Co-written and directed by Edward Zwick, Defiance is a much more contemplative and reflective film than his other work, such as Glory and Blood Diamond. While the action reminds us that Zwick knows how to stage a battle scene, the scenes of life in the camp are what impact the audience the most. It is almost impossible to imagine how someone could live the way these people do, but they find a way to continue with their lives in spite of all that is going on around them. They know that every day they stay alive is a victory the Germans can’t take away. | Matthew F. Newlin