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Fighting Back

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

The television ads and trailers for Edward Zwick’s (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall) latest effort, Defiance, tell you bacically everything you need to know about the movie: an unkempt, Eastern European-accented, darkly brooding Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, Munich, Layer Cake), exhorts his fellow Jewish survivors to step up and do everything necessary to survive. Cue quick cuts of explosions, bodies flying, gunfire, and Nazi troops. All, of course, filmed in the desaturated color scheme that has become de rigueur for Hollywood war films.

With its “based on a true story” claim, Defiance attempts to overturn the conventional wisdom (and stereotypes) about Jews and World War II. No longer helpless victims, the Jews in Defiance are every bit as willing to fight back, even against seemingly impossible odds, as non-Jewish partisans. The film follows four Polish Jewish brothers, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), the oldest and a natural leader, Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and, the youngest, Aron (George MacKay). After Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941, the Nazis and their Byelorussian collaborators kill or round up Jews into ghettos and later transport them to concentration camps. Zus and Asael narrowly escape. They find Aron hiding under floorboards and, fleeing into the nearby Naliboki Forest, they eventually meet up with Tuvia.

Eventually, other Jewish survivors join the Bielskis. A community forms around the brothers, eventually numbering more than a 1,200. Tuvia and Zus, strong-willed, natural leaders, however, clash repeatedly. Tuvia wants to limit engagement with the Nazis and protect the survivors. Zus wants to directly engage the Nazis through small-scale hit-and-run operations (i.e., guerilla warfare). Shortages of food, water, shelter, clothing, medicine, and Nazi patrols all pose constant threats to Bielski’s Otriad (as they come to be called).

Holocaust-related films like Defiance tend to risk turning a historical tragedy into superficially inspirational entertainment (e.g. Life is Beautiful). Undoubtedly, this film sheds light on a little-known Jewish story, one in which Jews actively saved other Jews. However, working from a formulaic screenplay co-adapted by Clayton Frohman from Nechama Tec’s non-fiction book, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, director Zwick relies too heavily on standard war film clichés and stereotypes. Outside of Tuvia and Zus and their conflict over means and goals, the other characters aren’t given room to develop. Asael is relegated to a minor subplot and the remaining characters are easily identifiable archetypes (e.g. the intellectual, the teacher, etc.).

Obviously, Zwick and Frohman had to make compromises to fit two-year’s worth of events into a two-hour film (Zwick admits to “exaggerations, compressions, and omissions” in the foreword to the new edition of Tec’s book). As with any narrative film, when you dramatize a particular historical subject you run the risk of sensationalizing that subject. When Tuvia rides on horseback and gives a speech that could have been lifted from Braveheart or Gladiator, it’s hard not to feel like Zwick is taking one too many liberties. Even more damning is an ongoing controversy over the Bielskis’ involvement in a massacre by Soviet partisans of Poles accused of collaborating with the Germans. That issue, however, remains unresolved, but it suggests that the Bielskis’ actions weren’t always as heroic or unambiguous as Zwick would like us to believe.