“Defiance,” a movie about the Bielski Partisans who organized 1,200 wayward Jews, during the darkest days of WWII, hid them in the woods of Byelorussia, and taught them to fight, has another battle on its hands. It has to beat back our own cynicism and ennui about Holocaust films in general. It does so in lightning feints, like a guerilla warrior. Which is not to say it’s a great film; it isn’t. But not so fast.
If you’ve followed the career of director Ed Zwick, you’ve traversed a minefield of thin characters inhabiting overheated melodrama and expensive-looking, but uncreative, violent set pieces. You’ve seen every kind of historical footnote mined and exploited for supposed cultural relevance. In fact, Zwick has made this movie at least three times before.
But even in those earlier films – “Glory,” “Blood Diamond,” and to a lesser degree, “The Last Samurai” – there are moments that stick to your ribs. A relatively unknown Denzel Washington being whipped, shirtless. The beautiful, black, bald head of Djimon Hounsou, down in the mud. The all-American star of “Top Gun,” a stranger in a strange land, locked in a dark room, screaming bloody murder for sake’.
Zwick hasn’t penetrated to the truth of violence, and maybe never will. But he has a gift for making the conflict of his actors and characters connect with an audience. He honed that talent all the way back as the co-creator of the glossy, prime-time soap “thirtysomething…”.
But now, for the first time, he has two actors who aren’t hamming it up. They’re simply THERE, 100%. This is no surprise from British actor Daniel Craig (who plays the heroic leader of the band, Tuvia Bielski) who labored so mightily to breathe a little subtext and sense into the unintelligible “Quantum of Solace”. But for Liev Schreiber (who plays Tuvia’s younger, impetuous brother, Zus) this is a near-revelation (though I suppose he’s playing Leartes again). Schreiber is almost too beautiful to be a leading man. The wide planes of his face make him seem otherworldly, better suited as a character actor or a villain. Here, he proves he is ready for much more.
The actors sink their teeth into the roles, and into each other, with an almost Biblical fraternal fury. Tuvia can’t stop collecting tattered Jews, escaped from the ghettos, whether they can fight or not. He gathers 1,200. He’ll figure out how to feed them later. Zus, wracked with the need to avenge his murdered family, wants nothing but to pile up Nazis like cordwood.
“What are you looking at?” asks Zus, as Tuvia gazes about. “The woods. They’re beautiful.” And indeed, as shot by the gifted DP Eduardo Sera, they are; but they’re more. Tuvia has developed The Sight, and is locked in on the spiritual wavelength of killing or being killed, like Witt in “The Thin Red Line”. Zus is a creature from the movie trenches of the ‘40s, or his resuscitation in “Saving Private Ryan”: heroic and relatively uncomplicated. He doesn’t understand that it’s the woods that have gotten to Tuvia; and they get to us, too. What an interesting mix of actors, characters, and an old directorial style meshing uneasily with the glimmers of a new one.
My own cynicism runs a little too deep, but perhaps the best way to enjoy this film is simply to give in. After all, the story is no mere footnote, not this time; it’s almost a paradigm-breaker. Many people subscribe to the stereotype that the Nazis were only able to do what they did because the Jews did not fight. But which of us, our families by our side, against a force so powerful, so organized, so evil and insane, would have found the steel to violently resist our very neighbors bent on genocide?
The Bielskis did.