Defiance starts off in a manner that makes you feel you've seen it before. Another film about the oppression of Jews by the Germans during World War II, this time using Belarussia (now Belarus) as the backdrop.
It opens with grainy black and white footage of slaughters taking place and two men watching from a hiding place before they run for further cover. The two men are brothers Zus and Asael Bielski, played by Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell, the latter quite a bit more grown up than when he first came on the scene eight years ago as Billy Elliot. Asael is barely out of his teens -- if that -- and his emotions take hold of him when the two return to their little farm and see that their parents have been slain. In a moment of relief, they find their younger brother Aron, played by George MacKay, hiding in a secret cellar and the three take off into the woods.
They're soon joined by their eldest brother Tuvia, portrayed by Daniel Craig in a characterization as far removed from James Bond as can be imagined. Not much later other Jews hiding in the forest emerge until a whole community is formed, creating enormous infrastructure problems not the least of which is how to feed them.
In the interim, there is tension among the brothers, mostly between the two oldest about how to deal with their situation. Zus is more aggressive and eventually joins the Russian Partisans, while Tuvia, more controlled and purposeful, stays behind to tend to the burgeoning flock.
And so it goes with guerrilla tactics employed with bloody force against hundreds of Nazi soldiers. Also killed are local collaborators, who'd just as soon sell out their former neighbors to get the relatively high bounty the Germans pay to corral the Jews. There are rivalries and factions and plenty of sexual tension with some of the prettier women. There's even a wedding, complete with a makeshift Chuppah and the stomping of the wine glass to celebrate the new love between Asael and his new bride, Chaya, played with sensitive strength by Mia Wasikowska.
It's a story of survival that's headed for disaster, because where can our heroes really run? The forest is only so large, and won't the big, bad Germans figure out there's a contingent of enemies finishing off their brethren every time they venture down one of the bucolic roads?
It's heartening to see Jews portrayed less as victims and as fierce fighting men and women determined not to march to their oblivion. This is not a Ghetto round up by any means. No one marches them onto cattle cars, and they are certainly not in the mood to be sent off to the death camps they have heard about but don't know for sure if they actually exist.
On the other hand, for every story such as Exodus wherein the State of Israel was created thanks to combative military tactics led by the heroic Ari Ben Canaan, there is always the legend of Masada and its equally brave participants who experienced much graver consequences.
Directed by Edward Zwick from a script by Clayton Frohman and Zwick, the film is based on a true story detailed in the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec. It is extraordinarily moving in ways that surprise us and reassure us even as some of our favorites are slain and we wonder whether everything they're doing is all for naught.
It's also about family and how sibling rivalry injects itself into truly horrendous situations and settings such as these. It's about hope and social caste systems, about snobbery and infighting even among the Jews. Yes, there are bad Jews, just as there are bad anti-Semitic Russian partisans, and weak Jews who are ready to give up. In short, it's a microcosm of our life on the planet and it's refreshing to see that all the players are not black and white, that all the so-called good guys are not terrific.
A bit over two hours in length, it's a little drawn-out and sometimes predictable, but the filmmakers have nonetheless produced a generally gripping and strongly emotional film without making it overwrought. The acting is intense at times but delicately played, in particular by Craig and Bell, though Schreiber in a more predictable role is no less convincing.
Defiance doesn't break new ground, but it's another piece of the traumatic puzzle about a family caught in the Holocaust maelstrom. Stories like these are rarely without merit and they deserve intelligent and well-made productions such as this one to keep on reminding the world -- never again!