“Defiance” is an Edward Zwick (“Glory”) film that was released in 2008. Zwick was inspired by an obituary for Zus Bielski. He based the screenplay on Nechama Tec’s Defiance: The Bielski Partisans. The movie was made in Lithuania in a forest about a hundred miles from the location in Belarus where the Bielskis actually conducted their operations. The movie was a modest success. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score by James Newton Howard.
The movie opens in Nazi-occupied Belarus in August, 1941. The Einsatzgrupen with help of local police were rounding up Jews and either deporting them or executing them. Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell) return home to find their parents dead, but their younger brother Aron alive in a hiding place. They take to the woods where they are joined by their older brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig). A mass grave in the woods makes it clear what the alternative to life in the forest is. The brothers are joined by refugees that are uniformly unfit for survival away from their cushy urban lives. The first order of business for the brothers is to take revenge against the local policeman who was responsible for the murder of their parents. When the hot-headed Zus learns of the death of his wife, all he wants is more revenge. A nifty ambush of a German vehicle ends in disaster and causes Tuvia to rethink things. Faced with the continual influx of refugees, Tuvia assumes the leadership role and establishes a policy of putting survival above revenge. “Our revenge is to live.” Zus disagrees with this wimpiness (“You don’t have the stomach to do what needs to be done”) and leaves to join a Russian partisan unit led by Viktor Panchenko (Ravil Isyanov). This happens after a kick-ass fight between Tuvia and Zus. The boys aren’t much for talking. There are plenty of intellectuals in the camp for that.
|"I just thought of a great way |
to meet chicks"
Survival doesn’t mean forgoing everything, so each of the brothers gets a love interest. The Jews develop a concept called “forest wives” because dudes gotta get some nookie even under dire circumstances and even though they might be married at the time. Leadership means having to shoot an asshole who is not only challenging your authority, but moving in on your brother’s forest girlfriend. Tuvia goes all in on the arboreal sanctuary concept by leading expeditions into the local ghetto to recruit more mouths to feed. One of the newbies is a comely lass named Lilka who provides a partner for Tuvia.
The Bielski Brigade does its best to create a livable camp in the forest. Urbanites chip in to build the camp in a montage, of course. The hardships include lack of food and an outbreak of typhus. The need for ampicilin gives Zus the opportunity to go bad-ass on a police station. Crises develop to keep the inhabitants from getting too complacent. A woman violates Tuvia’s "no babies" policy. A captured German gives the camp some outlet for all of their pent up feelings in a grim, but realistic scene. The movie spends time with Zus as he fights with the partisans. He evolves into quite the warrior, foreshadowing the Israeli Army.
|Not all Jews went meekly|
The Germans eventually get their act together and assault the camp. Asael leads the rearguard and Tuvia leads the exodus. This time the sea is not parted, but the people press on to the inevitable Hollywood set piece which includes the cavalry arriving and a reconciliation of antagonists.
As my readers know, I put a lot of value on war movies that bring obscure, but worthy people and/or incidents to cinematic light. Zwick’s “Glory” did this for Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts. This effort is less successful, but still a decent achievement. Like “Glory”, “Defiance” takes some liberties with historical truth to enhance the entertainment. The screenplay tweaks the brothers a bit. Tuvia was the oldest and the leader, but Asael was actually older than Zus and not the milquetoast set up for transformation. Tuvia and Zus were not at odds with each other. The brothers did link up in the forest near their home, but this was after their parents were taken away and were victims of a mass execution. The creation of the camp was well rendered and the various hardships are authentic, if not based on actual incidents. Typhus was a problem, for instance. The “civilian” characters in the camp are typical Hollywood stereotypes. The romances were Hollywood’s way of taking a relationship, wiping the record clean, and reconstructing it to Hollywood standards. Less acceptable is the Zus arc. Although his stint with the partisans is a nice balance to Tuvia’s camp scenes, in reality the brothers were not separated like this. In fact, the relationship with the partisans is melodramatized. The Bielski’s had more of a partnership with them and often joined with them for operations. The real Panchenko was more cooperative. More disturbingly, the last third of the movie really abandons veracity. Although they were forced to flee several times, the movie composites them and adds quite a lot of violence that did not occur. This is especially true of the feel good ending which reminds of the conclusion of “We Were Soldiers” in its departure from reality.
The movie is technically sound as are Zwick films. He uses the forest location well and the snowy environment adds to the palpable hardships the Jews have to overcome. The strength of the film is the acting. Craig does an excellent job portraying the imperfections of Tuvia. He is not a saint and he shows human weaknesses and doubts. (Some will quibble about his inconsistent accent, but I have never focued on this type of thing.) Schreiber is equally strong in a less dimensional role, but he gets to do the cathartic stuff that is audience pleasing. The movie wisely balances the two characters including some well-crafted intercutting scenes. The cast is outstanding and the characters are intriguing. In a refreshing divergence, the Nazis remain faceless. The potentially villainous Panchenko is actually multidimensional and realistically represents the Soviet attitude towards the Jews. The love interests are strong females. In fact, another refreshing aspect of the movie is the depiction of the Jews as survivors, not victims. This is not your typical Holocaust movie. It is more in line with “Escape from Sobibor”. The most memorable scene involves the German prisoner. Talk about cathartic.
The weakness of the movie is its predictability. Much of the plot developments are telegraphed. You know someone will get pregnant in spite of the "no babies" policy, for instance. The themes are trite. Do you have to become a monster to fight monsters? The movie answers no. Community is important. Everyone has a role to play. When you are knocked down, pick yourself up and start over. Life goes on. The movie is basically a collection of aphorisms, but that’s okay because those themes deserve to be emphasized.
I have not mentioned the action yet. It is quite good. There are several graphic action sequences that are in the recent war movie cinematography style. The assault on the police station in particular uses stop action (six frames per second) to a cool effect. It is noteworthy that the movie realistically depicts how it ain’t that easy to hit a target in combat.
Overall, I have to give the movie a positive review. It is not in a league with “Glory”, but it tells an important story in an entertaining, if overly Hollywoodized way. There is a nice blend of character development, drama, and action. But most importantly, how many people had heard of the Bielski brothers before this movie gave them the fame they deserved? I know I had never heard of them. I am thankful to Hollywood for that and for the motivation to read more about them. Movies can be educational as well as entertaining and historical movies can inspire us to learn more.
GRADE = B
HISTORY or HOLLYWOOD: Defiance
1. The Bielski farm was raided by Nazis and their parents were murdered.
2. Tuvia returns home to reunite with his three brothers.
3. Tuvia breaks into a collaborating cops home and kills him for his role in the deaths of his parents.
4. The brothers establish a camp in the woods where Jewish refugees flow in to join them.
5. The brothers begin to ambush collaborators and Germans.
6. Tuvia takes command and forbids revenge killings and wanton looting.
7. All three of the brothers take “forest wives”.
8. They have to flee because the camp is ratted out by a local.
9. They form an uneasy relationship with Russian partisans led by Panchenko.
10. Zus disagrees with Tuvia’s policy of survival over revenge so he joins the partisans.
11. Tuvia visits the ghetto to recruit more people.
12. Tuvia kills his horse for food.
13. Because typhus is a problem, Zus leads a raid on a police station to acquire drugs.
14. Tuvia’s policy of sharing the food equally leads to a coup attempt that Tuvia deals with by shooting the ring leader.
15. When a German soldier is captured, the Jews execute him by mob.
16. Tuvia forbids pregnancies.
17. The camp comes under attack and they have to cross a swamp to reach safety.
18. Upon reaching dry ground, the Jews defeat a German unit with a tank with the help of Zus’ partisan buddies.
1. The Bielski farm was raided by Nazis and their parents were murdered. Histywood The Bielski’s owned a mill. The parents were taken away and died in a mass execution and were interred in a mass grave. Aron was hiding behind a tree when the arrest was made.
2. Tuvia returns home to reunite with his three brothers. History Tuvia returns to find his three brothers living in the woods. Tuvia brought with him the woman he had hooked up with after leaving his wife with her family when she refused to go with him. Azael was actually the second oldest and had been the head of the family after their father had entered semi-retirement.
3. Tuvia breaks into a collaborating cops home and kills him for his role in the deaths of his parents. Histywood The brothers and two partisans broke into a policeman’s house at dinnertime to acquire weapons. The man was turned over to the local partisan unit headed by a man named Gromov. Gromov gave them some weapons and suggested they form a unit. They ended up calling their unit the “Marshal Zhukov group”.
4. The brothers establish a camp in the woods where Jewish refugees flow in to join them. History At first, it was just relatives. The movie accurately indicates that the brothers were mainly interested in saving as many Jews as possible.
5. The brothers begin to ambush collaborators and Germans. History
6. Tuvia takes command and forbids revenge killings and wanton looting. History Actually Tuvia was voted on as leader. He did control the looting in attempts not to alienate the local population, however they still occasionally demanded food at gunpoint.
7. All three of the brothers take “forest wives”. Histywood The concept is accurately portrayed and all three brothers did find mates, but the mates were inaccurately depicted. Tuvia’s “companion” Sonia was killed when a house she was sheltering in was raided. He then “married” a woman named Lilka who was 17. She had a crush on him from before the war. Azael married Haya. They also had known each other before the war. Zus did marry a woman named Sonia, but he was the initiator of the relationship. There are many who believe the brothers used their position to take advantage of women.
8. They have to flee because the camp is ratted out by a local. Histywood They had to flee several times for a variety of reasons, but not specifically because of this.
9. They form an uneasy relationship with Russian partisans led by Panchenko. Histywood Panchenko was an actual person, but he was only 20 years old when they first met him. At first he was suspicious of the Bielski’s because of rumors that they were looting. An investigation proved these accusations were unfounded and after that the relationship was cordial.
10. Zus disagrees with Tuvia’s policy of survival over revenge so he joins the partisans. Hollywood The brothers seldom disagreed on policies. Zus did not leave the camp to join the partisans. In fact, their unit often conducted sabotage and ambush missions with Panchenko’s unit.
11. Tuvia visits the ghetto to recruit more people. Histywood Tuvia did believe there was strength in numbers (one of the few things Azael and Zus disagreed with him about), but he did not go into the ghetto himself. He sent in messages encouraging Jews to leave and then sent men to guide the refugees out. Most of them left through a tunnel, not a hole in a wall.
12. Tuvia kills his horse for food. Histywood This incident happened with a different group of Jews.
13. Because typhus is a problem, Zus leads a raid on a police station to acquire drugs. Hollywood Typhus was a problem, but the raid was added for action.
14. Tuvia’s policy of sharing the food equally leads to a coup attempt that Tuvia deals with by shooting the ring leader. Hollywood Tuvia actually had a policy of giving food priority to the men who went on missions to get it. He did shoot an insubordinate follower, but it was not over food.
15. When a German soldier is captured, the Jews execute him by mob. Histywood A similar incident occurred in a different camp.
16. Tuvia forbids pregnancies. Hollywood I found no evidence of this.
17. The camp comes under attack and they have to cross a swamp to reach safety. History This happened, but they left before the camp came under attack. There was no rearguard action as shown in the film.
18. Upon reaching dry ground, the Jews defeat a German unit with a tank with the help of Zus’ partisan buddies. Hollywood There was no kick Nazi ass, happy ending with redemption for Zus. Zus was with them the whole time.
POST SCRIPT: At this point, they set up a camp on an “island” in the swamp, but they were beset by food shortages and the area was surrounded by hostile forces. Zus led a breakout by eighty fighters and they led the way back to the previous camp. Later, the Soviets conscripted Zus and the combatants to join their partisans and Azael was forced into a staff position. Only Tuvia remained in the camp to lead the noncombatants.