‘Defiance’: Gotta love those tough Jews

December 29, 2008

The season is so packed with movies that deal in one way or another with Nazis and the Holocaust that it’s nice to find one where tough Jews stand up for themselves and fight back.

Edward Zwick’s “Defiance” chronicles the true story of the Bielski brothers, who fled the Nazi massacre in their village in 1941 and hid in the woods in what is now Belarus. Eventually, they collected an entire community of Jews, who hid, raided villages for food and guns and created a resistance force of their own.

Though the film suffers from the same problem as Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” – an propensity for large-scale action scenes – “Defiance” has a cohesive, gripping story to tell. And it raises more questions that aren’t easy to answer, which is a good thing.

Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell play Tuvia, Zus and Azael Bielski, lower-class laborers who are helpless to prevent the slaughter of their family when the Nazis (aided by local militia) take over their village. They escape with their own lives and little else, heading deep into the woods, emerging only to find food and, eventually, guns.

Zus wants revenge; he burns to dole out justice to both Nazis and local collaborators. But Tuvia, though not averse to defending himself, finally decides that seeking vengeance makes them no better than their tormentors: killers, pure and simple.

Other escapees find them, aggregating in a forest community complete with dug-out living quarters and, eventually, a social structure. The growth of the group increases the pressure to find food, yet these arrivals also bring hope: that not all Jews are passively being herded into cattle cars to the death camps.

Instead, they create an encampment, though one that might have to be abandoned at a moment’s notice in event of discovery. But the camp is a community, with rules and hierarchy. Tuvia becomes the de facto leader, but his disagreements with Zus ultimately lead Zus to leave to join a group of Russian soldiers, also deployed in the forest and utilizing guerrilla tactics against the Nazis.

The community gradually builds to several hundred, though we probably get to know only a handful of them. And those seem overly concentrated on types: the rabbi who has lived a life of the mind; the shnook who learns to become a sentry; the shy girls who become leaders; the seeming leaders who become bullies. There’s an intimacy to the relationship, though more than a hint of symbolism to those types.

Still, the struggles within the community cut several ways, many of them having to do with class. Survival, in this sense, knows no class boundaries and it ultimately is the man of action who lives and the man who pauses to think, who first considers his action, who winds up dead.

The schematic nature of Zwick’s story-telling occasionally works against tension. You may not have seen this story about Eastern European Jews fighting for survival – but you’ve seen stories told like this about other ethnic groups battling for survival. Though the elements are rough and disturbing, the outcome is often predictable.

Zwick’s finale pits the entire encampment against more Germans than they can fight by themselves. The sequence is garish and overplayed and has a showy quality: “Look at us use our budget on a crowd scene.”

But his cast rarely lets him down when the scenes are less sprawling. Craig abandons his James Bond steeliness; there’s a difference between competence and courage, which is what this role calls for. His Tuvia isn’t a brute; he’s a fierce fighter with a conscience and a clear sense of where the line has been drawn – and when he’s comfortable crossing it.

Schreiber is also good as his more hot-headed, instinctive brother, Zus, who has the fiery temperament and sense of humor that Tuvia lacks. I also liked Mia Wasikowska and Alexa Davalos as two of the women who become involved with Bielski brothers.

“Defiance” is one of those movies that forces the viewer to wonder, “What would I do in that situation?” and not be sure how he would measure up. It’s hardly perfect but it is rousing and well-acted, despite a script that seldom takes chances.

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