Defiance (2008)

defiance IMDb

Most World War II movies fall into one of two categories: epic battle movies or Holocaust films. Defiance is a little of both, mixing battle subplots with scenes of Jewish civilians struggling to survive in the woods. It’s also terribly heavy-handed and a bit boring at times. This isn’t what I’d call an excellent WWII film, at best it’s OK.

Defiance tells the true story of the Bielski brothers, three Jewish men who escape to the forest when occupying Nazi forces order the execution of all Jews in their Belarusian ghetto. The brothers meet up with other fleeing Jews, and reluctantly take them under their wing. They eventually establish a secret community within the forest aided by Soviet partisans, and ensure the survival of 1200 Jews by the war’s end.

I appreciate that this film tells a different sort of WWII story than what is typically brought to the screen. After nearly 70 years of mostly the same sorts of stories being told over and over, I’m glad Hollywood is being forced to dig a little deeper for inspiration. On the other hand, this movie apparently changes or ignores a lot of the facts of what happened between the Bielski brothers and the local Belarus/Polish communities, and even glosses over some of the more controversial aspects of life within their makeshift community.

It also not so subtly stereotypes Jews as weak, intellectual types. At one point a family is coming to the community, and their little boy looks up at one of the Bielski’s (who is literally riding a white horse), and asks “Is he a Jew?” I will admit that I don’t know much about the Jewish community in the 1940s, but I’m assuming that they were just as diverse as any other ethnic group.

This is an interesting story, but maybe one too complex for the typical movie treatment. While the movie does address some of the moral dilemmas faced by the group (Is stealing to survive justifiable? Is it necessary to sacrifice one’s morals to fight evil?), it seems to mostly gloss over many of the real life gray areas.

Rating: C

I really love World War II movies. I think it is such an interesting period of time. I have grown up with tyrannical movie villains like Darth Vader, and to think only a few decades before I was born there was an actual person like Adolf Hitler. A man who is as evil as any fictional villain I could encounter on the silver screen. I find that whole era so enthralling, and am always drawn to movies that cover the Second World War. The film Defiance is a well-made picture, I am a really big fan of director Edward Zwick. I really enjoy some of his other directorial efforts like Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai. Blood Diamond is actually one of my favourite films of the past decade. He does a good job on this film, despite the fact that this script, which claims to be a true story, has more than likely taken some liberties with the actual events.

This film is set in Nazi occupied Eastern Europe, and follows the four Bielski brothers, who escape into a Belarussian forest in order to evade capture by the Nazis. Eventually more Jewish refugees arrive in their camp and the two oldest brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Live Schreiber), are at odds about whether or not to let these new arrivals stay. Over the next few months, many more Jews arrive at their forest dwelling creating a small Jewish community in the middle of a secluded forest. Tuvia is torn between his desire to help everyone and the hard truth that there is not enough food to go around. It is a very moving tale of survival and, as the title suggests, defiance.

Daniel Craig is an imposing figure. He is great as the eldest Bielski brother. I really loved the sibling rivalry that exists between him and Live Schreiber’s character. Schreiber also puts in a fantastic performance. Craig and Schreiber have great chemistry together, you really do believe they are related.

This is not a perfect film. I have read that much of this film probably is not accurate. I can almost guarantee that not one word of English was spoken in the Belarussian forest community that the Bielski brothers create, yet except for a few times, it is the only language used throughout the film. I am sure things have been exaggerated for effect, as they usually are when films are ‘based’ on a true story. This does not detract from what is a very enthralling film. The solid leads and captivating storyline make this a good film, and a solid addition to any World War II movie marathon.

Rating: B

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