Film Reviews


By • Dec 10th, 2008 •

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Not an easy movie to criticize, but here goes.

Based on the true story of the three Bielski brothers in Belorussia during World War II, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), and Asael (Jamie Bell) who, at the end of the war, had led and protected 1,500 Jews by setting up forest camps. They hid from the maundering Nazis.

It begins with petty criminal Tuvia killing the police chief who killed his father. The Nazis were going from village to village gathering Jews to send off to the concentration camps. Zus wants to kill not only Nazis but the collaborators and “desk-murderers”. And there are plenty of them. The locals are hunting Jews for the bounty offered by the Nazis.

“To be sure, had the Germans not found European (especially, Eastern European) helpers, then the Holocaust would have unfolded somewhat differently, and the Germans would likely not have succeeded in killing as many Jews.” (Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust”.)

I’ve read many, many books on the Holocaust, including but not limited to, “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews: 1939-1945”, “Inside the Concentration Camps: Eyewitness Accounts of Life in Hitler’s Death Camps” and the harrowing, “Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps.”

Author Saul Friedlander writes in “The Years of Extermination” that in Soviet occupied territory, where the Bielskis lived, their parents, Tuvia’s first wife and Zus’s wife were among the 4,000 inhabitants murdered by the Germans. Asael and Tuvia led two groups into the forest. Eventually, more family members and other Jews fled the ghettos and joined the “Otriad” under Tuvia’s leadership. Friedlander says the Bielski brothers “acquired legendary fame”.

“Jews make poor warriors.” (Joseph Stalin)

The Bielski brothers successfully challenged Stalin’s statement. However, DEFIANCE alters the story. Zus replaces Asael in the film as Tuvia’s secondary leader and is positioned as Tuvia’s adversary. He’s hot-tempered and wants to attack and kill. Furious with Tuvia’s more conciliatory (everyone gets an equal share of food) leadership, he abandons the forest camp and joins a group of Red Army partisans. This group is well organized, and has lots of vodka and weapons.

After being found out, the “Bielski Otriad” must find another even more remote part of the forest and begin to form a community. Asael finds a girl, Tuvia finds a girl, a rabbi preaches, an intellectual holds discourses, and the fighters demand more rations. When the Germans locate them once again, Tuvia must lead his people, like Moses, across water to safety. Also like Moses, Tuvia has killed, but he doesn’t have Moses’ face-to-face intimacy with God. Though the rabbi sees the Messiah in Tuvia’s eyes.

What the director and co-writer, Edward Zwick, and screenwriter Clayton Frohman fail to do is make the Jewish men and women hiding in the forest real flesh and blood people. They appear only interested in their place in the food queue. Where is the drama of a people forced to hide for years in an inhospitable forest? Instead, we are left to see Tuvia, Asael, and then prodigal brother Zus, as Hollywood action stars.

With broadly built Schreiber towering over Craig and ramping up the wild eyes, Craig, looking admirably like the perfect mountain man, is left to play the sensible leader, questioning his ability to hold the camp together. I would have liked a bit more realistic inter-personal conflict and to have learned more about the people who lived in the camp. At least they didn’t mutiny and build a Golden Calf.

While a fine attempt at addressing the Jews who did not meekly accept being herded into concentration camps – even though millions did – DEFIANCE shows a long line of people just standing around waiting for the Allied rescue.

Check Out Allan Levine’s book, Fugitives of the Forest: The Heroic Story of Jewish Resistance and Survival During the Second World War, here and here.

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