Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Defiance: the True Story of the Bielski Brothers

In a season with a surfeit of Holocaust related films, it might be helpful to think of Edward Zwick’s Defiance as a motion picture of the partisan resistance instead. In addition to sounding different, it also happens to be a more accurate characterization of the film. Chronicling the true story of the Bielski Otriad, a ragtag group of Jewish resistance fighters operating in the Naliboki Forest of Belarus, Defiance (trailer here) opens in New York tomorrow, in advance of a national release in January.

The sibling rivalry between Tuvia and Zus Bielski runs so deep, even the murder of their family and parents cannot fully abate their strife. Seeking sanctuary with their youngest brother Asael in the woods of their youthful explorations, the two elder brothers have vastly different ideas on how to proceed. Zus believes the brothers should look out for each other and extract their revenge on the occupying soldiers and town collaborators when the opportunities arise. Tuvia however, refuses to turn away anyone seeking refuge at their camp.

Their differing temperament leads to a temporary parting of ways for the brothers. Zus joins the nearest group of Soviet dominated partisans, hoping to take the fight to the Germans, while Tuvia stays with the growing band of refugees, building a makeshift shelter in the forest. Though the Communist partisans were initially almost as great a threat to the Bielski Otriad as the National Socialists, an uneasy truce is forged. While Zus proves his fierceness in battle, he still experiences anti-Semitism from his ostensive comrades.

Meanwhile, at the Bielski Otriad, as the community grows, circumstances force a looser approach to relationships, with the development of so-called “forest wives.” Tuvia even makes a clandestine trip to the ghetto, offering an alternative to eventual deportation and certain death. Of course, this was no vacation. In the short term, members of the Bielski Otriad face harsher conditions than those who remained, enduring disease, starvation, and freezing temperatures. However, with Tuvia Bielski there was hope, as the film makes dramatically clear in its finest moments.

Defiance is a bit of a hybrid, fusing elements of the action movie with the serious inspirational message film, yet it all works together reasonably well. Craig certainly comes in with credibility as an action figure and does not disappoint. His early revenge-taking scene (with a mere four bullets) actually ranks with 007’s first kill in Casino Royale as a great, stone-cold cinematic killing. As Zus, Liev Schreiber is frankly a pleasant surprise, intense and completely believable as the action-oriented Bielski Brother.

Unfortunately, Zwick’s direction does not always serve the film as well as his actors. He lets the pacing get bogged down during the sequences of the extreme winter privations and his final battle sequence often feels strangely limited in scope (surely the German military could have spared more than one tank for the operation). He does deserve credit though, with co-screenwriter Clayton Frohman, for not whitewashing Soviet anti-Semitism.

There are no scenes of concentration camps in Defiance, but there is some payback for those killed by the National Socialists. Having reviewed seven Holocaust related films already this holiday season (including new releases, POV, film festivals, and MoMA retrospectives), I almost found that cathartic. Indeed, the film compares well with many of its recent thematic competitors. Defiance is a legitimately inspiring historical story convincingly recreated on-screen. It opens in New York at the Ziegfeld Theatre tomorrow, with a national release on January 16th.