The usual depiction of the Holocaust is that of the death camps–Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka and the like–and the ghettos. But that doesn’t really convey how far reaching the Holocaust was, stretching out even to the tiny villages and all areas of German controlled territory. And it tends to skip what happened to Romani all together.
As the German Army advanced into Russian controlled Poland (into the areas of what is today Belarus) they brought their program of ghettoization with them. Some members of the Jewish community, having dealt with similar in the Russian pogroms, already weren’t going to lie down again. Instead, lead by charismatic former soldier Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), they disappeared into the hills around Navahrudak where–depending on which version of the story you get–they either took on all comers or huddled down to wait out the war.
Like any historical drama, “Defiance” is based on a true story, but that’s about all. The Bielski partisans really did exist. But, as compelling as historical stories can be they still never follow any sort of narrative arc, because real life just isn’t like that. So writers are compelled to sweeten the pot a bit. That’s enough a part of the genre that it’s not much of a criticism unless taken to extremes. And in service of a solid idea, a solid story, it’s perfectly acceptable. But, it doesn’t seem like Zwick really knows what kind of story he wants to tell. Instead he’s left groping and grasping at lots and lots of different strands, none of which really stick.
At first the Bielski brothers embark on a crusade of revenge against collaborators and any German soldiers they come across, but it soon becomes clear how hopelessly outmatched they are and that survival will be hard enough. To everyone but short-tempered Zus (Liev Schreiber) anyway, who understands that partisan fighting is a war of attrition but has no time for the human cost involved.
It’s at the film’s beginning that “Defiance” is at its best. The issue of collaboration in war time is filled with ambiguity. What choices are there when both sides will kill you for not helping them? And how much does that matter to the people personally affected by it? Unfortunately, Zwick can’t keep that up for too long as the film quickly splinters into several different stories that are not particularly well integrated. Zus leaves to join a band of Russian fighters as Tuvia becomes a savior and protector for local Jews despite himself, and younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell), forced to take Zus’ place, must grow up faster than expected.
A lot of the character arcs are not particularly original. I tell a lie. None of the character arcs are particularly original, and they’re not well helped by the film’s dreary tone. It’s a serious topic to be sure, and turning it into light entertainment would be a severe disservice. On the other hand, though, Zwick has shown an inability throughout his career to be anything other than deadly, deadly serious all the time. It’s like being lectured by a stern headmaster. Real drama works best when the situation is created and then allowed to play out on its own, letting the intensity of the situation come about as it will. But Zwick can’t resist the temptation to put his thumb on the scales.
It’s a problem compounded by its look. Filmed on location in Lithuania, it spends most of its time moving from one wooded area to another as the partisans build their version of Sherwood Forest. But one set of woods looks pretty much like another, and after an eternity of watching the band suffer through winter in Eastern Europe you might start to think you’re stuck there too.
Zwick’s still a very good actor’s director, though, and except for Schreiber the performances are generally fine all around, especially Jamie Bell who continues to do better than he should in roles that could easily devolve into cliché. Craig has a tougher fit with Tuvia, who’s a little too heroic for a lot of the film, at one point prancing about on a white stallion as he delivers a stirring speech. I don’t think even Mel Gibson would have gone quite that far.
But it’s the slow, bloated middle that “Defiance” can’t get away from. Particularly the endless suffering of the partisans in the winter forest, alternately freezing or starving to death while Tuvia suffers from fever and a crisis of confidence.
The rest of the film is very Hollywood, from obligatory but shallow love interests, to its big action finish. For all its pomp and ruminating, “Defiance” isn’t really interested in drama. It really just wants to entertain us. But it’s not any better at that.