Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Freaking Nazi’s. Some seventy five years after they were summarily dismissed they are still a hot topic of discussion, particularly in cinema. Just this week I’ve had to deal with Nazis messing with Tom Cruise in Valkryie, then we had the damn Nazi’s doing illegal mystical experiments in the horror movie ‘The Unborn’, then Nazi’s were making ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ life completely miserable, the we got to witness Nazi’s on trial in ‘The Reader’ and today we have Nazi’s doing what they traditionally do, which is hunting and slaughtering Jews, in Edward Zwick’s ‘Defiance’. That’s a helluva lot of Nazi’s to deal with in a week.

Poland is in the midst of being occupied by The Third Reich – it just at this very moment dawned on me that I have no idea what the First and Second Reich were. Five minutes worth of research later and now I know. Anyway, Zus Bielski (Liev Schrieber) and his younger brother Aseal (Jamie Bell) return from the woods to find their village decimated and their parents murdered. Emotionally destroyed, the brothers wander into the woods and stumble upon their oldest brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig), the veritable Prodigal Son returning home, and deliver to him the horrible news.

Lost and homeless and not knowing what to do next, the quick to anger Zus wants to taste blood while the calmer Tuvia pleads for patience. Eventually the brothers make their way to the forest of Belarus where they pick up of a cadre of other displaced Jews who add significant numbers to their ranks. Against the advice of his brother, Zus who would just a soon see these other Jews, who he terms as elitist, go their own merry way and fend for themselves. Tuvia on the other hand has taken on the mantle of protector and provider to these people and has even setup a small community to help his growing masses.

All is not well as Tuvia continues to butt heads with his brother, who has left the group to join the Red Army to fight the Germans, and even his own country men who they feel have betrayed them. The conditions are harsh, food is scarce, disease is rampant and there is unrest and upheaval amongst the campground inhabitants as Tuvia finds himself being challenged on a daily basis. There is also the little issue with the Nazi’s and those who have aligned themselves with the Nazi’s who continually hunt and comb the woods looking to exterminate anyone they find which keeps the growing community constantly mobile in search of a safe place to setup shop. Tuvia and his charges find that you can only avoid the enemy so long and eventually one has to stop running and start fighting, no matter how great the odds.

There aren’t many directors as adept at making these vast period epics as Edward Zwick, taking into account what he was able to do with his previous films ‘Glory’ and ‘The Last Samurai’, both of which I thought were very good. Defiance is very good too, particularly Liev Schreiber who’s as good in this movie as he has been anything I’ve seen him in, aside from his bang up work narrating those HBO sports specials that I love to watch. Zwick’s direction is drum tight, the film flows smoothly from point to point and it has interesting story to tell which keeps the narrative alive and simmering. Daniel Craig is also very good in this film, particularly the relationship between he and his brothers as Mr. Craig is making quite a name for himself as a 21st century leading man. In playing the conflicted Tuvia Bielski, Craig presents an average man attempting to please everyone at the same time, while pleasing almost no one, and then eventually just breaking down the situation that he’s trapped into its simplest common denominator and just doing what has to be done.

There are a few things, at least in my opinion, that keep ‘Defiance’ from being transcendent or becoming a great movie. I think the lack of a tangible antagonist hurts the film. The overall specter of the Nazi’s serves as the overbearing boogeyman in this film, and though this does work to a degree, there’s really no emotional attachment or emotional effect in watching nameless faceless Nazis getting mowed down and beaten to death. I also don’t think that Zwick completely visually conveyed the true hardships that these people had to go through to survive their conditions or the horrors that war represents. It felt almost as if he kept his foot off the gas a little bit to keep the film more palatable and more approachable. It’s not like he presented the plight of these Polish Jews as a picnic in central park, but it also wasn’t unflinchingly realistic as some previous World War II pictures we have seen.

Still, assuming you’re not all Nazied out, ‘Defiance’ is a very good movie. It’s not the action film or the brutal revenge flick that the advertisements would have you believe it is, but instead a deliberately paced movie, with the occasional bout of explosive violence about average people and their relationships with each other, while held hostage to some of the most difficult circumstances that any of us could ever imagine being thrust into, with the only goal being survival.

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