Just when you think that surely, by now — especially after this year of nonstop Nazi movies! — we’ve heard every story to come out of the Holocaust, along comes yet another new one. Another true one. And another one that’s all about the limits to which people get pushed — and to which we push ourselves — in extreme situations. Yea for us, that we find ways to survive the seemingly unsurvivable. Yea for us, that we’ve been able to find the humanity in the middle of one of the worst things humans have ever done to one another. But, man, what a way to learn this lesson… and to keep learning it over and over again in the stories we tell one another.
I’m not saying, “Enough with the Nazi movies.” I’m saying, “Enough for the crimes against humanity.” Note to whomever is in charge: We’ve gotten the message, so you can lay off now. I mean, look at how peaceful the world has been since World War II!
That Defiance is not relentlessly grim even as it’s, you know, relentlessly grim is a credit to director Edward Zwick, whose track record on intense storytelling ranges from the starkly brutal (the 1983 TV movie Special Bulletin, about a nuclear terrorist attack on American soil) to the laughably off-key (2003’s The Last Samurai). Here, though, in the tale of three roguish brothers who lead a band of Jews in hiding in the forests of Belorussia as the Nazis are rounding people up for the camps, there isn’t a lick of phony sentimentality, not a moment that rings false. It even manages to make us feel as if we haven’t seen much of this before, even though we have.
Because while the details may be relatively original to Hollywood moviemaking, the structure and the Hollywoodized template of the tale are pretty standard. That isn’t always a bad thing. Hollywood makes it easy to decry Hollywood filmmaking, but every once in a while a studio film reminds us why studios films got so popular in the first place: they can be rousing and inspiring entertainments that feel archetypal rather than clichéd. “Standard” doesn’t just mean ordinary or average — it can also signify the pinnacle of how something can be done.
So if it’s a little bit Robin Hood-ish when one of the heroic Bielski brothers, Asael (Jamie Bell: Jumper, King Kong), says, “We know these woods. They’ll never find us in here,” well, that’s just fine. What he and his brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig: Quantum of Solace, The Golden Compass) and Zus (Liev Schreiber: Love in the Time of Cholera, The Painted Veil), are stealing from the powerful Nazis are people — Jews — and what they are giving the “poor” is themselves, not only their own lives but a sense of hope and a way to carry on in a terrible situation. The track of where their story goes is inevitable, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Of course their refuge deep in the dense forests cannot be safe forever from such persistent pursuit, and we know that someone had to survive this horror to tell the tale — the movie is based on Nechama Tec’s nonfiction book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] — but there are more than a few intense moments when it’s hard to see how…
It’s those details — which Zwick lavishes over in a way that is both loving, to ensure their richness, and sparse, to avoid bringing the plot to a standstill — that make the story sing. Some are not unfamiliar: how one copes with traitors and collaborators, how one struggles not to become like the monstrous enemy one is fighting, how life goes on even amid deprivation, sickness, and ednless fear. Others are more surprising: Craig navigates Tuvia through a landmine of personality: he’s a petty criminal used to people treating him like dirt but comes into his own as a natural leader; he’s a hard man who’s an unexpected soft touch, one who cannot turn away anyone who needs help; and yet there comes a moment when you begin to wonder whether Tuvia hasn’t gone as soft as a man like him can go, and then: oof! The film — and Craig — smack you across the face.
Some of the details are bittersweet: two brainy types, a teacher and a publisher, cheerfully argue politics and philosophy even as they engage in what is probably the most physical work they’ve even done in their lives. (It takes a lot of hands to build a village from scratch.) Most of the details are bitter; a rabbi in a Nazi ghetto who rejects Tuvia’s offer of escape, saying, “We’re waiting for god”; a moment when Schreiber’s Zus is so full of grief that what he does feels so spontaneous that I had to wonder whether he improvised it… and if he did, he’s a far more dangerous actor than I’ve ever given him credit for. (And if he didn’t, then he’s only proven, again, how unforced his forceful naturalness is.)
But bitter is not the feeling Defiance leaves you with in the end. It’s hopefulness, even as we can’t forget that we haven’t learned our lessons from such events at all.