Director Edward Zwick brings us a unique perspective to the Holocaust tragedy in his newest film, “Defiance.” Starring Daniel Craig (of “new” James Bond fame) as Tuvia Bielski and Liev Schrieber (“Hamlet,” “Mixed Nuts”) as Zus Bielski, “Defiance” follows the true story of a group of Russian Jews hiding out in the woods during the height of Nazi aggression in World War II Russia. Tuvia and Zus find themselves taking in more and more refugees until the need for organization arises. Tuvia, much to his brother’s chagrin, emerges naturally as the camp’s leader.
Throughout the film, the camp is beset by illness, snowstorms, internal strife, Nazi attacks and aerial bombings. Food is an ever-present concern and pregnancies are forbidden. The film grabs the audience and pulls it into its world by bringing the terrors of the Holocaust to the fore.
In one of the film’s first scenes, Tuvia and Zus’ youngest brother Aron Bielski (George MacKay) stumbles upon a group of Jews hiding in the forest. In doing so, he also discovers a long and winding trench dug into the forest floor. To Aron’s horror, the trench is filled to the top with the naked, bony bodies of executed Jews.
One of the movie’s most alluring aspects is its synecdochical controversy that reflects the evil of the Holocaust. Even during Nazi-free moments, Tuvia experiences many trying situations within the Jewish refugee camp, from deciding which Russian civilians they should steal from and how much they should steal to whether they should kill civilian witnesses to protect their location.
In a world where survival is one’s primary concern and people are executed for their religion, Tuvia refuses to abandon his pre-war morals and ethics and believes in kindness even to the people they rob. Zus, on the other hand, meets the ugliness of their situation with the cold, realist mentality of “kill or be killed.” This ideological contrast eventually leads to blows between the brothers, and Zus leaves the Jewish camp to join the Red Army partisan camp elsewhere in the forest.
The film’s strength lies in how Tuvia and the other leading members of the camp respond to each new threat, be it Nazi, natural or internal. The audience sees how the Jewish refugees as a whole respond to each threat as well, and how they manage to hold onto their vestiges of humanity even when living in a forest.
Eventually, the refugees build huts, furniture, a school, a kitchen and a nursery from scratch. Two ever-kvetching friends argue over politics, philosophy and the Torah while someone carves a chessboard and chess pieces.Tuvia’s love interest of the story, Lilka Ticktin (Alexa Davalos), pops up out of the blue about halfway through the film and the two unrealistically fall for each other a little too quickly.
If anything, the love story of the third brother, Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell) is more compelling. Asael’s love interest with Chaya Dziencielsky (Mia Wasikowska) carries an atmosphere of childhood innocence, and to see it bloom amid Nazi soldiers and genocide is surreal yet charming.
One of the most ambiguous scenes of the film is when Asael and Chaya are married within the camp. Throughout the ceremony, the camera keeps cutting to Zus and the Red Army brigade setting up an ambush for a Nazi patrol elsewhere.
As the marriage ceremony progresses, the tension in the music rises as we watch Zus’ brigade take aim. When Asael crushes a glass cup under his heel (traditional of Jewish marriages), people begin playing klezmer music just as Zus and the Russians open fire on the Nazis.
We watch the Jewish refugees dance and sing and celebrate with Asael and Chaya as Zus’s brigade tears the Nazi patrol apart – to klezmer music. Nazi officers fall and are blown backwards as their trucks explode. The merciless annihilation of the Nazi patrol to a joyful klezmer tune reflects, once again, the general controversy ever-present in the film’s situations. It could also be seen as director Zwick’s cinematic middle finger to the Nazi regime.
Craig’s performance as Tuvia is good, but does not surpass any expectations. In some of the more controversial scenes, the emotion Craig displays feels lacking at times and would have done much to empowering the scene.
The power of the film arrives in the evidence of the weak and unprepared rising up to meet a towering foe. Most Holocaust-related films portray the horrors and suffering that the Jews were subject to by portraying them as helpless.
The film does well to show that even in the most horrifying and overpowering conditions, people can still organize and fight back. “Defiance” is more tension and drama than gunfights, but it all meshes together to deliver a rather entertaining – albeit sobering and at times, saddening – experience.