Film review by: Witney Seibold
In Belarus, during the war, many Jews hid from the Nazis (and Russian militias) by hiding out in the woods. They foraged for food, built their own shelters, and amassed weapons to fight off any intruders. This is the first movie I can think of (with the exception of Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”) which shows Jews very openly enacting revenge fantasies against the Germans. “Defiance” has the advantage over “Basterds,” though, in the regard that it’s a true story.
Four brothers, Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and the young Aron return from their hideout to find that their parents have been murdered, and they are being directly hunted by the local Nazis. Tuvia (Daniel Craig, playing a vengeful Jew for the second time in his career, even though I would sooner cast him as a Nazi) is the eldest, and thinks to collect guns, and hide in the woods. Zus (A very good Liev Schreiber) is the violent, action-oriented one who only thinks to get revenge. Asael (Jamie Bell) is torn between influences, but will grow into a hero.
Eventually the brothers begin to encounter other Jews who have been hiding in the woods. Despite a lack of food and a general lack of confidence in their situation, the Jews begin to camp together. More and more Jews flee from their nearby hometowns into the woods and join the camp. By the end of the war, there will be over 1200 people in this camp.
The film follows each of these men closely through the workaday details of surviving in the woods. They are joined on food and medicine runs, they make trips to the local ghettos to rescue more people. All the while, they are obsessed with thoughts of bloody retribution, and, indeed Zus ends up decamping, and joining the local Soviet militia for a chance to fight.
This film was directed by Edward Zwick, who is best known for other topical wartime films like “Blood Diamond,” and “The Last Samurai,” and “Glory.” “Defiance” is probably his best film, not only in the gory mechanics of survival, but in the way in manages to deal with the morals of the situation. Is it right to exact revenge? Does it matter what is right when revenge will feel so good? In one harrowing scene, a group of Jewish civilians mob and beat to death a defenseless German soldier while Tuvia looks on, unwilling to stop them. This is a brutal scene, and difficult to watch, but it seems to be exactly what the characters wanted to do. There could have been a Romantic moment, in which Tuvia bravely steps forth and rescues him, but I think the bloody act we saw was more believable.
“Defiance” was gorgeously shot in dreamy blues and warm sepias. We see every cake of frozen blood, and every wisp of steam from the watered down potato soup. This is a marvel of photography, but does – only occasionally mind you – steer “Defiance” dangerously close to the obvious, hand-wringing, melodramatic WWII fantasy that we see come out of Hollywood. I think the brutality of the film, and the truthful moral ambiguity save it from this school, however, and make it an oft-stirring WWII drama.