DEFIANCE, a fact-based WW2 story of survival and resistance, directed, co-written & produced by Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends Of The Fall, Blood Diamond), is set in what is now the nation of Belarus. In 1941 it was Belorussia, part of the U.S.S.R., front & center in the path of Hitler’s invasion. The death toll was astronomical. Zwick and co-writer Clayton Frohman based their screenplay on Nechama Tec’s 1993 non-fiction book “Defiance: The True Story Of The Bielski Partisans.”
When the Nazi onslaught devastates Belorussia and concurrently begins systematic liquidation of its Jewish population, refugees flee to the huge Naliboki Forest. Among them are the four Bielski brothers, whose parents, wives, children and other relatives have been slaughtered. Familiar with the forest, they eventually attract more than 1,200 desperate followers, hoping to endure the elements and evade the Germans and their anti-Semitic collaborators. Informal command splits between quarreling older brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schrieber), with Tuvia more inclined to instill, organize and keep a sense of community and Zus more bent on revenge, taking the fight to the invaders. Then there’s the winter…
On the plus side—-(1) a can’t-lose inspiring story, one of the handful that involves active Jewish resistance against what would become The Holocaust, as opposed to the generally accepted and endlessly reinforced ‘docile lambs to slaughter’ trope. Unarmed, terrified and numbed, most individuals, let alone groups, typically balk from illogical violence. We always cheer someone who has the chance or wherewithal to fight back. (2) strong performances from Craig and Schreiber, even if, in appearance, as brothers they seem likely as Abbott & Costello. (3) impressive production detail in costumes and props, atmosphere-sealing location shooting done throughout winter conditions in neighboring Lithuania (4) effective action sequences—bar one—and good work from the supporting cast, fine cinematography, music scoring and sound.
Less successful—-(1) underdeveloped secondary characters, tending to cliche (2) glossing over explanatory gaps—how & where did the food and ammo come from? where is this forest locale in relation to the German advance (3) bifurcation of the story threads of Tuvia and Zus that off-kilters narrative momentum (4) a tacked-on cathartic final battle that not only didn’t happen but most certainly would not have worked out the way the film portrays (5) like almost every movie swipe at history, things less than salutary to the protagonists are left to discovery in post-viewing.
Reviews generally laud the committed acting and intensive production detail and task the selective script and occasionally blunt direction. The grim nature of the story and its remote locale and date didn’t have crowd appeal: against a $32,000,000 cost the grosses came to $51,200,000, 85th place internationally.
James Newton Howard’s fine if unsurprising score drew an Oscar nomination. With Jamie Bell, George Mackay, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Tomas Arana, Mia Wasikowska, Ravil Isyanov, Iben Hjejle, Jodhi May, Sam Spreull. 137 minutes.
* Per population & capita, few places on Earth suffered as much in WW2 as Belorussia. Read (if you can stand it) Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin”.