[30 January 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The Holocaust remains, for all intents and purposes, the ultimate expression of evil in our lifetime. Outside the obvious elements of genocide and the organized political support for same, the inherent concept that human beings could actually do something like this to each other resonates as the most shocking sentiment of all. So naturally, any story about the struggle against such unfathomable wickedness immediately gets out attention. We don’t really care about the details or the factual fallacies. We just want vengeance, and it better be more than a mere ‘eye for an eye’. When he stumbled upon the story of the Bielski Brothers, Jewish rebels that saved thousand of their fellow persecuted peoples in 1940s Belarus, filmmaker Edward Zwick must have realized he had the makings of one of the most important World War II films ever. Unfortunately, Defiance misses its major opportunities, focusing instead on ancillary issues unimportant to the final cause.
It’s 1941, and in Eastern Europe, German forces are moving toward Russia and its surrounding territories. Upon returning home, the four Bielski Brothers - Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron - discover that their parents (and most of the surrounding townsfolk) have been slaughtered by local police working under direct Nazi orders. Fearing for their lives, they head to the local woods to hide out and make plans. There, they run into other refugees, Jews also driven out of their houses by the current purge. Together, they join forces and begin forging a life in the wilderness.
Conflict erupts between the oldest, Tuvia, and his brash and more brazen younger brother Zus. The former wants to find a way to simply survive. The latter seeks justice for what has happened to his people. When he can’t find what he’s looking for among the exiles, he joins up to fight with the Russians. This leaves Tuvia and Asael to hold the fragile balance within the camp together, even as winter approaches and the constant threat of attack looms over them.
Defiance wants to be an epic. It certainly has a larger than life storyline (albeit one based on the true story of the Bielski brothers and their exploits during the war) and pushes all the right buttons for maximizing cinematic manipulation. Director Edward Zwick is famous for such fancy pantsing, having made his mark with such examples of celluloid showboating as Glory, Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, and The Last Samurai. Here, he wisely keeps the narrative locked into the struggles of the Belarus Jews and their freedom fighter watchdogs. We don’t get unnecessary Nazi shenanigans, no Swastika symbolism meant to mean more than just an inherent cloud of evil. Instead, there’s a moment when some survivors leave a local ghetto and toss off their yellow patchwork Stars of David, as if Zwick is purposefully arguing that this is a movie about people, not emblematic punditry.
And at first, we buy the ruse. Daniel Craig (Tuvia) and Liev Schreiber (Zus) are mesmerizing as two sides of the same scattered coin, a pair of bickering partisans looking to merge their misspent youth with a chance to play hero. They are joined by Jamie Bell (Asael) who, while given little to do, maximizing his moments as the sometimes skylarking brother. By placing this trio into the middle of 20th Century’s greatest heart of darkness - ie, the Final Solution and its victims - their own nationalism is reduced to a remembrance. Even when they meet up with a Russian company desperate for supplies, their agreement to help doesn’t overcome an intrinsic anti-Semitism bubbling under the surface. As such, Zwick tends to hedge his bets, adding unnecessary tangents to remind us that the Children of Israel are at risk.
It’s at this point where Defiance bogs down. We spend way too much time in the middle of the handmade housing development, concentrating on sequences that have nothing to do with how this group managed to survive for so long. In their place, we get an overly long build up toward the creation of a roguish, crude villain, one too many dialectic debates, and romance where realism would work better. There are hints at something called a “forest wife”, but Bell’s Asael has to take his intended bride in full blown celebratory fashion, complete with dancing and jubilation. It’s clear that Zwick caters to this material in an obvious attempt to argue that, even in the face of almost certain death, life - or something remotely similar to same - endures.
But that’s not what we want from a movie where Jews kill Nazis and their lunk-headed sympathizers with action sequence like satisfaction. We want Craig, Schreiber and Bell to pack heat and take names. We want more scenes like the one where a random German solider is brought into the camp and literally beaten to death by an angry mob. We’ve had enough nobility and non-violence. We’ve already seen the films where, in the name of what’s fair and what’s right, the Jews are given over to the implication of “God’s Will”. If the Bielskis managed to find a way to keep things in control for nearly four years, wouldn’t that story be much more satisfying than occasional character touches. The legacy suggests something a bit more bravura.
Still, in the moments where Tuvia and Zus take charge, in the montages when the rampant disease of a horrid Eastern European winter dissipates into a far more fiery and desperate spring, in the suspense-filled sequence where German planes bomb the refugee camp back to the Stone Age, Defiance finds its voice. It’s clear that Zwick is more adept at handling fire and brimstone than interpersonal problems. We never buy the relationships present, never feel that people this hopeless would de-evolve into the standard Moon/June love lines. Still, there’s enough power and emotion within the primary narrative to carry us across the weaker bits. Defiance is without a doubt the best of the Holocaust themed films from 2008. Unfortunately, that may be faint praise indeed.