Defiance sets itself in the harsh reality of the Holocaust to tell the story of a Jewish settlement trying to survive in the forests of Belarus after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Establishing this brave settlement are the Bielski brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay). They fight daily to survive in a cold wilderness while bearing the weight of both winter and Nazi oppression on their shoulders.
It is a true story of the Bielski brothers and their determination to save fellow Jewish countrymen from genocide. The Bielskis begin to harbor non-combatant survivors and build a society of refugees and partisan fighters. Hunted by German soldiers and required to assist the Soviet troops, they find the revenge they seek in living and fighting.
However, there are dissenting opinions on how best to accomplish revenge, and the camp suffers a great loss when Zus and some other men leave to join the Soviet troops against the Nazis in direct conflict. Tuvia and his two youngest brothers stay and lead the camp, establishing a sizable population of refugees and work camp escapees.
With such a cast of extras and stars, I was not surprised to find that not one part lacked depth or appreciation. Daniel Craig was no exception and played his part with true grit and character. He immersed himself in his role and made a great impression as the hard-lined savior of the camp. As the hotheaded brother Zus, Liev Schreiber plays an independent soul who was born to lead. Full of sibling rivalry and clashing opinions, the scenes between Zus and Tuvia glow red like heated iron ready to make a sharp sword with the strokes of a hammer.
With tragedy lying thick in the air and so many hardships to overcome it should come as no surprise to any viewer that this is a dramatic film. The movie works with its nature and plays through many of the classic conflicts of literature. Revenge against the Nazis and SS supporters (man versus man) is fulfilled on several occasions in late-night operations and executions. The group’s survival during their sojourn in the wilderness is, in itself, a conflict of man versus nature.
The film’s writer and director Edward Zwick takes a slow approach to each conflict, presenting them at a pace that allows the audience to adjust and evaluate each one. With the separation of Zus from Tuvia and the refugees, the story begins a subplot of vengeance and anti-Semitism outside the Jewish camp.
Switching perspectives is actually accomplished well, as it makes the movie feel like a continuous sequence of events instead of a “choose your own adventure” novel where you try to read both choices at once. This method of storytelling is even more appreciated because the audience is able to see the characters evolve alone. Unsupported, the character must have stone-like resilience. However, this allows time to eat away at their granite exterior and reveal what that person is truly made of.
All of this character development makes the movie a very long, dramatic affair, but fortunately there are some concessions to action-oriented folks in some very heroic battle scenes.
Although the action is nothing exceptional, the camerawork is most outstanding in the capture of these scenes. Documenting every explosion, detonation and death in fine detail, the camera presents the gritty realism of life in combat. The film also presents a delicate touch in tender moments when needed, and it somehow constantly presents the pervasive sadness of the plot to keep the film’s dark tone.
To state it plainly, this movie was an excellent retelling of a heroic story in one of humanity’s darkest hours, and each feature of the film complements this to no end. The depth of the acting, the excellent pitch between conflicts and the representation on screen are deserving of praise.
The movie runs for two hours and this may put off more than a few moviegoers, but sitting alone with the entire theater to myself, I realized that I must spread the word that Defiance is an excellent film. So, I beseech the Technique readership to see this movie and tell everyone to do the same.