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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
An Enthralling True Story
by Diana Saenger

As a film critic, I like nothing better than to be entertained by a film while learning a bit of actual history as well. Defiance, Edward Zwick’s engrossing true story about Polish Jews who escaped from the grips of Hitler’s murderous hands, is such a film.

During 1941 Jews are being massacred in the thousands by German forces throughout Europe. As troops march into Poland, brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber) Bielski return home to find everyone in their family slaughtered except for their younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell).

The three brothers escape into the forest of Belarus where they plan to hide as well as seek revenge on the German officers who killed their parents. As word of the resisters holed up in the forest spreads, the brothers are joined by more and more Jews who escape death as the Nazis continue on their killing escapade.

While the encampment grows -- by the end to nearly 1200 Jews -- so does the conflict of personalities, even between Tuvia, now the camp leader, and Zus. News that both of their wives and young children were killed fills them with frustration and despair. But there are too many mouths to feed, too many elderly and unfit to care for -- and all of this must be done with little provisions. With so many depending on them, they resolve to be the scrappy and resourceful fighters they were before the invasion.

When confronted by the Russian army, Zus goes to fight with them, while Tuvia agrees the encampment will work on supplies for the soldiers. Although Tuvia is forced to move the group from one forest to another, he manages to build an entire city practically out of nothing. Among the influx of Jews are artisans and workers who help build huts, fix weapons, and make a few potatoes go a long way.

Part of the fascination of this story is that it really happened. The other part involves Zwick’s incredible production. The film is based on Nechama Tec’s non-fiction book of the same name with Zwick and Clay Frohman writing the adaptation.  As he did with his films Glory and Blood Diamond, Zwick has created a compelling and passionate drama that never lags for a second.

“The popular iconography of the Holocaust has mostly been one of victimization.” Zwick said.  “It’s important to add complexity to that notion -- to understand that there is a difference between passivity and powerlessness, that the impulse to resist was always present. Defiance is about those who managed to fight back, but it is also about the enduring conflict between the desire for revenge and the desire to save others.” 

One would imagine filming a two-hour story in a drab forest with winter-clothed actors would produce little to captivate viewers. However, Portuguese cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Blood Diamond) keeps the focus on the characters and their situations in the encampment. The ravages of war seamlessly meld into the scenes where Asael gets married or Lilka (Alexa Davalos) stands her ground with a wolf over a bag of food.

While most of the cast is relatively unknown, everyone holds their own in the story. I think Defiance showcases Craig and Schreiber’s best performances to date. Each brother has the willpower to survive, but each one instills his meaure of hope in different ways. Craig, who has found huge favor as Bond in the James Bond franchise, depicts Tuvia as chiseled with determination to save all of those who have sought out the brothers.

“He (Tuvia) obviously had something in him that was so vital and full of life and so affected by the tragedy around him that he had to find a way to take control of the situation,” Craig said. “For Tuvia, I think the motivation becomes about more than just fighting back, but about creating a family and a community. This became their reason to survive.  To me, that’s the really big theme of the film.” 

Schreiber (Love in the Time of Cholera) also excels in showing that Zus wants the same results as Tuvia, he’s just less assured about their ability to handle the task.

“Zus is someone who is always driven to fight,” Schreiber said. “He starts out believing that the most important thing is to make someone pay for the loss of his family and for all that he has endured. He slowly begins to realize that home is where his brothers are, and that he belongs with his family.” 

There’s a heart-wrenching line in the film that states, “Jews are only good at dying.” Thankfully, Defiance is another true story that reveals how determination and hope can not only overcome unimaginable horrors but also obliterate that notion. I was enthralled from beginning to end both times I watched this memorable film.

(Released by Paramount Vantage and rated “R” for violence and language.)

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