Tuvia Bielski: These Jews do.
“Defiance” opens with what felt to me like an unintentional act of its own defiance. Black and white footage made to look archival graces the screen in a harrowing montage. There are the screams of children being pulled away from their parents; there are the images of Nazis senselessly putting guns to the backs of people’s heads. There is even a score driven by the violin work of Joshua Bell that sounds an awful lot like the one in that Spielberg movie with the girl in the red coat. Director Edward Zwick’s message is clear. He doesn’t want to talk about the Holocaust. Why should he? We all already know the story there. In case we don’t, he is sure to throw in a few facts up on screen between the quick and horrible imagery. The Holocaust is not the story he wants to tell. However, reducing the Holocaust to a montage so that the audience is brought up to speed is such an offensive trivialization of a mind-blowing tragedy that it is a miracle that “Defiance” ever manages to recover from its first few moments.
The story that Zwick is in such a rush to get to actually well worth telling, just not worth the steps he took to get there. Daniel Craig, Live Schreiber and Jamie Bell are the Bielski brothers. Their parents and most other siblings have been killed by the SS and they have sought refuge in a nearby forest. Before long, they run into a number of other people who have found themselves in the same situation. The numbers grow into a community and even though they barely have shelter to keep themselves warm through the winter and rarely get to eat more than a bowl of potato soup, they have something far more valuable; they have their freedom. As “Defiance” is quite pleased to boast, the Bielski’s beautiful acts and the thousands of lives that were saved by these acts are the untold holocaust story. Unfortunately, the story itself isn’t told all that genuinely. Instead, Zwick, along with co-writer, Clayton Frohman, chooses to highlight conventional devices like brotherly alpha male conflicts instead of focusing on the gripping reality around them.
Like Zwick’s last offering, “Blood Diamond”, “Defiance” is set in a dire situation to make the conventional plot points seem that much more horrific. It is the kind of movie that makes me wish it would have been better than it was as the story itself is quite moving. Somewhere in the middle of the lengthy stay in the forest, “Defiance” finally finds its footing and allows the true bravery of the Bielski’s to shine. I only wish Zwick’s sense of satisfaction in being the first to show the Jews taking a stand and fighting back didn’t taint the whole thing. Oh, and I think Spielberg beat him to that punch too.
Review by Joseph Bélanger