defianceposterstarring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell
written by Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick & directed by Edward Zwick
Rated R for violence and language.

When the Nazis invade their neck of the Belorussian woods, the three Jewish Bielski brothers, Tuvia (Craig), Zus (Schreiber), and Asael (Bell), retreat deep into the forest, set up camp, and prepare for long-term survival. Before long, however, the camp is overflowing with refugees, ranging from the young, strong, and skilled to the old, weak, and sick. Tuvia and Zus, as the natural leaders of this place of refuge, are soon engaged in an ethical and philosophical clash over the best course of action. Tuvia thinks that they must hold on to their humanity at all costs and do their best to take responsibility for the weak, even if it endangers everyone’s chances of survival, while Zus believes they should assure the survival of the strong and join the local partisan forces in waging war on the Nazis.

I wouldn’t say that American movie audiences have not become desensitized to the Holocaust, but a certain jadedness does exist towards films about the Holocaust. Defiance suffers from its relation to a genre that can feel exploited (and exploitative) at times. Consider, for instance, the very fact that one can categorize “movies about the Holocaust” as a genre. This year alone has produced several such films, and the subject feels a bit belabored. However, as long as there are more stories to be told about that ultimately indescribable event (and there always will be), movies will continue to tell them. Defiance, at least, brings to life a genuinely incredible story that deserves to be told, and does it well.

Perceptive viewers will immediately notice that Defiance has an obvious historiographical axe to grind. Zwick obviously believes that the film’s first duty is to tell the story he wants to tell, and its second (when it can be made to coincide with the first) is to remain true to history. However, as long as we are aware of the film’s creative license, this is a strength rather than a weakness. Zwick uses the idea of a group of Jewish partisans facing eradication in 1940s Eastern Europe to explore what are really universal human questions.

In setting up a moral conflict between Zus and Tuvia, the film forces us to confront our own assumptions about how to prioritize our own self-preservation when it might threaten the sanctity of other innocent human lives. The film also refuses to allow its characters to exist in a simplistic world of obvious choices between right and wrong, nor do the “heroes” always act “heroically.” The power of these moments exists in the uncomfortable disconnect between the exhilaration we can’t help but feel and the queasy knowledge that it wasn’t right.

These were the elements that lent depth to my viewing of Defiance and prompted me to sit up and take notice. I should say, though, that first and foremost I definitely connected to this film on a visceral level. It is thrilling in an armrest-gripping way that is very easy to get caught up in. I presume it could be argued that there is a great deal of calculated effort to play on audience emotions, but if that is so it is not done with the sort of ham-fisted blundering that drags the viewer out of the movie. By the end I was just sort of in awe at the thought that even a fraction of this story might actually be true. In the face of an account that compelling, it seems almost superfluous to compliment the production on its various components: performances, cinematography, score, and so forth. All are good enough, but the important thing is the way they come together to bring the incredible world of the Bielski otriad to life.

~ by Jared on January 19, 2009.

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