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Defiance (2008) September 13, 2009

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Second World War is an event that happened seventy years ago. Numbers of those who could relate to it through their personal experiences are dwindling, yet the debates about its causes and aftermath continue like the war happened yesterday. Many times those debates revolve about myths, half-truths and attempts to give some sense to global carnage with simple explanations. One of such debates revolve about question why Jews didn’t fight back when faced with Holocaust. The truth about war was, of course, more complex and those who ask that question ignore situations when Jews actually did fight back. One of such examples is subject of DEFIANCE, 2008 film directed by Edward Zwick.

The plot begins in 1941, after German armies invaded Soviet Union and conquered Belarus. Hitler’s Panzers are followed by SS Einsatzgruppen that begin massacring Jews even before the official start of Final Solution. Among the victims are parents and family of Tuvia  (played by Daniel Craig) and Zus Bielski (played by Liev Schreiber), brothers who survived because they know forests of Belarus like the back of their hand. They hide in woods and try to survive, occasionally engaging in acts of revenge against local Nazi collaborators. After some time, their exploits become a legend among surviving Jews who join their group that would eventually number hundreds of people. As times go by, conflict develops among brothers – pragmatic Tuvia wants only his group to survive while Zus wants revenge against Nazis and even joins Soviet partisans despite the anti-Semitism in their ranks.

Based on a true and fascinating story of Bielski partisans, DEFIANCE provides something other Holocaust drama rarely do – geunine action scenes. Zwick, whose previous work in GLORY and LAST SAMURAI shows talent for depicting combat, doesn’t disappoint here. Those scenes are well-connected, look realistic (partially due to being shot in Lithuania, near genuine historic locations) and, most importantly, fit into the context of the story about ordinary people being forced to do extraordinary things to survive. DEFIANCE also provides intriguing glimpses into some practical problems of people in such situations, namely how to get food and shelter while trying to evade genocidal enemy. The most interesting segments of the film deal with the “natural” social order being reversed in such situations; petty thieves and smugglers who were treated like dirt before the war become leaders due to their pragmatic blue-collar skills; intellectuals, who were supposed to be leaders of community, are next to useless under such conditions. Furthermore, script also provides characters with difficult moral dilemmas, which is good and mostly well-used opportunity for Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber to show their acting skills.

Generally good impression of DEFIANCE begins to worsen when the film approaches its end. Zwick and his co-writer Clayton Frohman apparently couldn’t provide proper ending to the fascinating real-life story, at least not by succumbing to Hollywood cliches at the expense of historical truth, making this film annoyingly predictable to the experienced viewers. However, even the spectacular battle at the end is un-cathartic and DEFIANCE ends disappointingly.

The film looks even more simplistic when its depiction of events is compared with more complex historic reality. This created some controversies in Poland, because the area portrayed in film – part of present-day Belarus – used to be part of Poland before WW2; this fact is ignored in film, just like the rivalry between Soviet and Polish partisans that made predicament of Bielski partisans more complicated.

However, the biggest flaw of DEFIANCE has little to do with Zwick or anything he could have done. Characters, situations and setting of this film just happen to be eerily similar to COME AND SEE, Elem Klimov’s Soviet 1985 film that is arguably the most intense and the most powerful movie ever to be made about WW2. All those who watched Klimov’s film are bound to be disappointed by DEFIANCE.

RATING: 6/10

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