(2008)3.5Jason BuchananA Holocaust film that's light on sentimentality but high on human drama, Defiance tells one of those remarkable survival stories that's so incredible it must be true. Though the poster image may indicate a film geared more toward a physical act of defiance rather than a philosophical one, anyone walking into Defiance in search of some cathartic, Nazi ass-kicking action will be sorely disappointed. It turns out co-screenwriters Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick (who also directed) are more interested in using the scenario to explore man's inhumanity to man and the ways that war simultaneously brings out both the worst and the best in our unpredictable little species rather than following a group of machine-gun-toting Jews as they decimate Hitler's ranks.
Defiance takes its inspiration from Nechama Tec's nonfiction book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, which recounts the tale of three brothers who narrowly escaped a Nazi raid on their family farm, took refuge in the surrounding forest, and survived in the wilderness by setting up a small community with others who had lost their families and/or homes to the Nazi invaders. The year is 1941, and the Jews of Eastern Europe are under the threat of total extermination. Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Aron Bielski (George MacKay) have just lost everything they ever loved, and now in order to survive they must retreat into the trees. At first they have a distinct advantage over their pursuers; they grew up in these woods and know well how to use the cover to their advantage -- though as other wanderers arrive and their ranks begin to grow, so too do their chances of being discovered by the Nazis. When the competition for leadership between Tuvia and Zus threatens to stir dissent within the ranks, Zus makes the decision to leave the group and join a brigade of Russian resistance fighters who have set up camp nearby. As winter sets in, food supplies dwindle and disease begins to spread, causing many to wonder whether they should have remained in the ghetto and taken their chances with the Nazis.
When it comes to Holocaust dramas, filmmakers have a habit of focusing on the larger stories and the epic battles -- and who can blame them? After all, it was a time when the world came precariously close to falling under the command of a fascist tyrant commanding an imposing army, and seeking to wipe out an entire race. And though many film lovers immediately recall haunting images of mass graves or sweeping shots from Triumph of the Will when we think of that horrible time in history, some of the most remarkable stories from that time are also some of the smallest, as evidenced by the continued impact of The Diary of Anne Frank, or, more recently, Roman Polanski's The Pianist. In Defiance, you won't find any goose-stepping Nazis marching in formation, and the one shot of a mass grave is revealed with a sure-handed subtlety that truly makes the blood run cold. This is an intimate story of family and community, told on the kind of small scale that forces us to experience the horror of losing someone whose face we recognize and whose voice has faded forever into the wind. It's a stark, albeit inspiring drama wherein brotherly bonds (both literally and figuratively) are put to the true test, and the challenge faced by survivors is how to maintain their humanity while being hunted and slaughtered like animals. The value in a film like Defiance is in helping us realize what it takes to hang on to our compassion even in times of unprecedented despair, and never giving up hope -- even when logic dictates that all is lost.