When God hides His face, it seems Jews are on their own. Defiance, the story of the Jewish partisan combat group headed by the Bielski brothers in the new movie by Edward Zwick, is the narrative of Jews on their own. During the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Nazis and their local collaborators mercilessly slaughtered Jews wherever they found them in the countryside. In the cities, they were ghettoized and then systematically deported to death camps. This is the all too familiar narrative of Jews as victims, passively going to their deaths like sheep led to slaughter. Defiance presents another historical dimension to this era, and chronicles the heroic determination of these brothers and the hundreds of ordinary Jews who fled the Nazis from Nowogrodek to the nearby forests of Belarussia—to stay alive and equally important, to stay human.
This is the subject of this flawed but, nevertheless, deeply moving movie.
What gives the movie a special edge is that it’s based on a true story. More importantly, the sight of Jews fighting back—determined to sabotage, kill and, if possible, destroy their oppressors—is awe inspiring and a badly needed corrective to the overwhelming notion that all Jews in the Holocaust meekly accepted their martyrdom.
The Bielski partisans saved over 1,200 Jews during the war and are considered one of the most successful rescue missions of the Holocaust. The struggle was to stay alive, to be a Jew in life and not just in death. That was the Bielski credo that sings out in the heart of this film.
The film opens with documentary footage of the savage assaults of the Nazis on the local Jewish population, and segues into the murder of the Bielski brother’s parents. What follows is the survivors’ flight into the forest, their initial struggle to survive and then establish forest camps for other survivors. How they first managed to obtain weapons and food parallels the realization that their survival was linked with the survival of many of the other Jews who had also fled into the forest.
To feed and defend their growing band, they had to themselves become leaders and establish a primitive kind of collective. Everyone would learn to shoot and defend him/herself, everyone would work, and everyone would have a job contributing, to the survival of the community.
The Bielski brothers were rural Jews, farmers who had an intimate knowledge of the surrounding forests because of their sometime-smuggling sideline. Quickly, the differences between them emerge; Zus (Liev Schreiber) is tough, cynical and violent, determined to inflict as much death and suffering on the Nazis as possible. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) is a much more introspective, brooding individual, deeply committed to building a community that can survive in the harsh environment of the endless forest. After an operation against the Nazis that almost ends disastrously, he declares, “We cannot make mistakes…we cannot lose anyone. Our revenge is to live…we will not become animals. Every day of freedom is like an act of faith.”
Tuvia becomes obsessed with saving other Jews, so much so that he infiltrates local ghettos to recruit new members to join the growing group in the Naliboki forest. His confrontation with the ghetto leaders starkly outlines their differences. One leader patiently explains to Tuvia that fighting back or fleeing is useless and will simply end in the death of more Jews. In spite of the relentless persecutions and killings in the ghetto, he insists, “Our only weapon is time.” The community rabbi intones, “We are waiting for God.”
In defiance of their leaders, many of those assembled follow Tuvia out of the ghetto, ripping off the hated yellow stars they were forced to wear. Comparing his group with the ancient Maccabees, Tuvia proclaims, “This is one place in all Belarussia where a Jew can be free to live!”
The tension between the brothers finally explodes in a fistfight in which Tuvia almost kills Zus. As the forest camp witnesses the shocking conflict, Zus storms off to join the Russian partisans from the Red Army. He is uneasily accepted by the Russian commander who leads his unit to relentlessly kill and sabotage the Nazi patrols and occupiers.
A brilliant sequence that characterizes much of the remainder of the film presents two parallel events. In one, Zus and the Russian partisans successfully attack a large well-armed German convoy, while back in the depths of the forest, the Bielski camp celebrates a joyful wedding – the young couple under a chupah as the snow falls gently on all assembled.
The smashing of the glass and the cry of “Mazel Tov!” simultaneously symbolizes the creation of a successful refugee community in the forest and the victory of the partisans over the Nazi oppressors. It is December 1941, and the brothers have each found their own way to survive and serve their fellow Jews.
Defiance unflinchingly examines what was possibly the greatest challenge to the Bielski brothers and the rest of the Jewish community they sheltered for over two years in the forest. The test was how to survive and still remain even marginally decent and human. For this group of Jews, yiddishkeit was but a memory. The values one had toward one’s fellow—kindness, mercy and community—were constantly weathered against the harsh necessities of survival. As much as they fought, worked and ate together, they quarreled, rebelled and visited terrible cruelty on anyone suspected of being an enemy. In order to keep the group together and safe, the Bielski brothers had to be ruthless in maintaining discipline
The director, Oscar winner Edward Zwick, has been quoted as saying, “You have these chapters of history that get lost.” He has readily admitted the Bielski brothers were not saints, but rather flawed heroes – but heroes nonetheless. This chapter of Jewish resistance, bravery and faith in the value of Jewish life, has been preserved in this film with what seems like a remarkable amount of honesty and bravery.
However, despite its many qualities, Defiance is flawed in a number of disturbing ways. Almost all depictions of Jewish suffering presented are maudlin and stereotypically melodramatic. It is almost as if the common knowledge of Holocaust suffering has exempted the filmmaker from depicting this in anything but a superficial manner. So too, the depiction of extremely predictable types among the refugees—the comic relief of bickering and inept intellectuals who mature in the harsh forest life, and the subplots of romance and rivalry between the camp members—has made portions of the film come across as pure, Hollywood formula.
At its heart, Defiance is a breathtakingly exciting action film of Jewish resistance, complex social organization and conflicted brotherly relations. In much of the film, the cinematography by Eduardo Serra is achingly beautiful, especially in the evocation of the forest that became the effective protector of the Jewish partisans and their charges. The numerous battle scenes are excellently choreographed, fascinatingly photographed and in many ways deeply moving, since a real empathy is established between the characters and the audience. For Jews, their fight, their wounds and their victories are ours.
The film does not ask where God was. It simply asserts that when He seems hidden and distant, Jews have to do for themselves. And this is one time when we clearly rose to the challenge.
A film by Edward Zwick
Written by Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick
From the book, Defiance, by Nechama Tec
Paramount Vantage: Warning: Rated R
(Some content may be inappropriate for certain viewers)