“If I was a German, you would be dead.” Lucky for his brother, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) is not a German. But he does have a gun pointed at that brother’s temple. A smuggler (under duress), he’s just returned home to occupied Byelorussia, and found his three brothers, Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and young Aron (George MacKay), hiding out in the woods. As he soon learns, their parents have been murdered by a local police chief, working alongside the SS death squads who have been ravaging the countryside in search of victims. The brothers stand briefly together amid tall trees and damp earth, to contemplate their dwindling options, their faces smudged and their jaws clenched.
Their decisions are recounted, sort of, in Defiance, Edward Zwick’s movie version of the legendary Bielski Otriad. Beginning in 1941, the brothers put together a resistance in the Naliboki Forest, a community and militia that are alternately haphazard, desperate, and fierce. (And in this effort to recover a history not always remembered, the film recalls Zwick’s Glory.) At first the brothers come on other Jewish refugees by accident (one early episode shows the compassionate Asael inviting a small band to their four-man camp, much to practical-minded Zus’ consternation), and as news of its existence spreads, it becomes a destination point. Their status as Jews who fought back is here rendered using generic conventions, ranging from fable to boys’ adventure to shoot-em-up action scenes.
Based on Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec, the movie establishes the camp as a source of collective identity (“This is the one place in all of Byelorussia where a Jew can be free”), as well as individual tasks. As the group’s number increases (by 1944 when they emerged from the forest, they are about 1200), they grow basic crops, organize into family units (men take “forest wives”), steal weapons and “confiscate” foodstuffs form neighbors who still have homes. They also learn to shoot, make bombs, and set traps for the Nazis.
Soon new camp members are being registered as they enter, telling their names and previous occupations so they might be put to best uses (“A nurse is good,” smiles one list-maker). They also form a predictable range of types, including the wise professor Shulman (Iddo Goldberg) and the feisty young intellectual, Malbin (Mark Feuerstein), who has the usual trouble with his hammer. While the men debate history and Nazi policy (one maintains the Germans still need them for work camps), the women find mates. Bella (Iben Hjejle), Zus’ designated love interest, asks him, “Why is there a rule against women having guns? Women need guns for protection.” When he answers, gruffly, “Women have men for protection,” she has the appropriate response at the ready: putting his hand on her breast, she murmurs, “I want protection.”
Save for surrogate child Aron, each of the Bielski boys gets a girl (following appropriate close-up reactions and then mourning times when the two eldest learn their first, never-seen wives have been killed in the cities where they have been sent to be safe). In what seems an imposed structure, Zus and Tuvia are set in tension, following the latter’s decision to assassinate their parents’ killer and his two sons, in front of his wailing wife. Traumatized, Tuvia insists that they manage their business going forward without becoming “animals” like their enemies, while Zus wants to kill every Nazi in sight, preferably brutally (one particular error in judgment leaves Zus furious: “We should have killed the fucking milkman,” he mocks his brother, “This politics of diplomacy is shit”). This philosophical split leaves Asael mostly caught in between (that is, when he’s not distracted by the pretty girl Chaya [Mia Wasikowska], whom he eventually weds in a traditional rustic ceremony).
Following a knockdown-drag-out fight in front of the community — who watch with eyes wide, waiting to see their fates decided — Zus joins up with Soviet People’s Army General Panchenko (Ravil Isyanov), whose unit goes on regular raids against the enemy (“Anyone else who would rather fight than wait to be killed,” he announces, “come with us!”). As Tuvia settles reluctantly into his role as group leader, he takes on a blue-eyed beauty of a forest wife, Lilka (Alexa Davalos). When she is not fighting off an attack from a wolf — literally — she’s supporting her man against internal rebellions or nursing him while he has typhus, during which time he coughs frequently, looks increasingly pale and frail, and generally plays Camille, but oh so valiantly.
Such melodrama drags the rest of this ostensibly historical saga into a decidedly middling territory. The film’s insistence on romantic clichés and reductive moralities amid the chaos of the war means it loses sight of the sheer determination and ingenuity that provided for the Bielski group’s survival, which, more than once, involved picking up the entire camp and moving elsewhere. By the time an epigraph notes the extent of their forest society (and adds that the brothers not only survived this prolonged hell, but then also emigrated to New York and opened a family business), you’re left wondering how Defiance came to spend so much time on the stalest story points.