By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 22, 2009
Courage and compassion are the primary forces at work in “Defiance,” the new film by director Edward Zwick. This movie shows the best and the worst of humanity and is inspirational in its story of survival during the Holocaust.
Based on the book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans,” by Nechama Tec, the film is inspired by the true story of the Bielski brothers, who saved 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by organizing a hiding place in the forests of Belarus for those trying to escape the Nazis. Unlike many of the partisan groups fighting the Nazis in that area of Belarus and Poland, the Bielski group is notable for its focus on helping the hunted Jews survive rather than fighting the Nazis. The Bielski brothers became unlikely and little-known heroes in desperate circumstances.
The movie “Defiance” opens as brothers Zus and Asael witness the Nazis terrorizing their village. They return to their home to discover that their parents have been slaughtered. The only survivor is their youngest brother Aron, who is found hiding in a cellar. They take to the forest, where they are soon joined by oldest brother Tuvia.
Their first priority is survival, followed closely by a desire to avenge their parents’ deaths. Soon, however, they are faced with a quandary. Jewish refugees fleeing to the forest for a chance of survival are looking to the brothers for leadership and protection. The brothers must decide whether to protect only themselves or to take responsibility for the others. As Tuvia, played by Daniel Craig, looks into the desperate faces of the refugees, viewers see the moment that he accepts the burden of responsibility. In a situation where the chance for survival is slim at best, the brothers choose to share their meager resources and a community is born.
The film plays up the differences between Tuvia and Zus. Weighed down by his leadership but with a tendency to the idealistic, Tuvia believes that their main priority should be helping as many people as possible. The reactionary Zus, played by Liev Schreiber, has more of a taste for vengeance and wants to actively fight the Nazis. After a series of power struggles between the two, Zus leaves the camp to fight with a Russian partisan group, providing two sides of the war fought in the woods. Both actors give understated but moving performances. Joined by Jamie Bell as Asael, the three oldest brothers form a solid core to the film.
“Defiance” was filmed on location in Lithuania, not far from the site of the actual Bielski encampment. The forest itself becomes another character in the film, beautiful yet treacherous. The film depicts the difficulty of life in the forest, especially during the long, frigid winter. Lack of food and medicine, harsh living conditions, and the constant fear of discovery take their toll on the refugees.
In spite of all these difficulties, however, they begin to form a community. It is inspiring to see how, even in desperate circumstances, the human spirit can endure and even triumph. In one of the most memorably beautiful and touching scenes in the film, a young couple marries as the rest of the camp looks on. Stunningly filmed, the snow swirls around as the pair join their lives together in a traditional ceremony. Even in the worst of times, the camp inhabitants manage to hold onto their hope, their love and their faith.
Director Zwick chose to intercut scenes from the beautiful marriage celebration with scenes from a bloody battle between the Russian partisans and the German soldiers. Designed to illustrate the two sides of the struggle—the struggle to retain one’s humanity coupled with the struggle to fight the enemy—this timeworn technique nevertheless comes across as clumsy.
That delicate balance that the Bielskis and their followers negotiate—between building a civilized community and taking revenge on the Germans—is more thoughtfully represented in the rest of the film. The camp inhabitants are, at times, pushed to uncharacteristic acts of violence. A scene in which a German prisoner is killed by a vengeful mob is particularly difficult to watch. However, taken in context, the necessity for violence is understandable, if not particularly admirable.
The character of Shimon Haretz, played by Allan Corduner, serves to articulate the role of religion for the refugees. Haretz is Tuvia’s former schoolteacher, and in his debates with another intellectual, Isaac Malbin, played by Mark Feuerstein, Haretz shows signs of losing his faith as circumstances grow more harsh and hopeless. By the end of the film, however, he tells Tuvia that he believes God has sent the younger man to save the people. His return to faith, even as he sees the worst in people, is impressive.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the complexity of the characters. The Bielski brothers are certainly heroic, but they are not perfect. One of the reasons they are so skilled at hiding out in the forest is that they were often on the run from the police before the war. Although their intentions are good, they often make the wrong decisions, and they are forced to steal and even kill to ensure the survival of the camp. The film shows both the good and the bad, and at times the action can be brutal.
The question, then, becomes whether the ends justify the means. In this case, the end is the survival of 1,200 people through one of the most horrific periods of history. The coda of the movie makes the point that the descendants of the survivors now number in the tens of thousands, all people who would have never existed without the help of these brothers.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.