One wonders why it took so long to tell the story of the three Bielski brothers, who managed to save the lives of 1200 Jews during the Nazi Holocaust in World War II. My personal answer is that they didn't have anyone near the caliber of Daniel Craig to play the part of Tuvia.
The story opens with the Bielski brothers Tuvia (Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber) returning to the family farm to discover the Germans killed their parents. They find their younger brother, Asael (Jamie Bell) hiding from the slaughter in a cellar.
They decide to go to the forest to hide out. It's initially pure happenstance that they run into other refugees, but as the story progresses, they have a community from philosophers to warriors.
It's fascinating to see the community grow and the harsh realities of living under the Nazi radar. The images in this film will haunt me as strongly as the original newsreel "Let my People Go" did when I saw it in junior high.
In my opinion, "Defiance" is one of the top films of this year and I hope it earns the awards it deserves. The film is excellent for students of Jewish history, psychology, and community development. It's well worth full price in the theatre and adding to your collection.
Rebecca Kyle, February 2009
on October 11, 2010
There is a myth, long-standing, that the Jews of Europe submitted passively to their fate at the hands of the Nazis and their willing helpers during World War II. According to this myth, Jewish resistance to the Holocaust did not exist, except perhaps in the Warsaw Ghetto, an anomalous, dramatic exception to a nightmarish reality in which Jews blandly climbed on board trains to be taken to unspeakable places to face an unspeakable fate.
Fortunately, that myth is being exploded sixty years after the fact, and DEFIANCE, the story of the Bielski Partisans, is part of that process. The Bielski Partisans were led by the brothers Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron, Jews from White Russia (now Belarus), who took to the woods after their village was targeted by the Einsatzkommando "B", an SS killing corps.
Many Jews, in fact, fled to the woods, and Jewish Resistance arose in many places throughout Europe. The Bielski experience in the dense Naliboki Forest is paradigmatic. The Jews of city and town, often tradesmen, small business owners, or scholar/intellectuals, were generally ill-equipped for the rough life of forest-dwellers. In this regard, the Bielskis, whose father had been a countryman, were peculiarly suited to lead. Having grown up in and around the woods and with a familiarity with tools and weapons, they became not only protectors but teachers in the art of survival.
Tuvia (Daniel Craig) became the leader, quiet, intense, sincere, and often in a quandry both moral and practical. How does one lead men, and care for women and children in conditions of deprivation? How and when does a leader lead or let himself be guided? How does a leader, as an authority, assert that authority?
Tuvia "would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill a dozen Nazis," but he is no milquetoast. He takes vengeance on the local Russian officer responsible for killing his parents. Nazis paid a bounty to those who betrayed their Jewish neighbors. Jews were worth 500 rubles a head, a small fortune to many starving peasants. Much later, he settles a challenge to his leadership from within by executing the mutineer.
Craig, known for his role as James Bond, really shows that his talents are wasted as the suave British spy. As Tuvia Bielski, he shines, an ordinary man called upon to do extraordinary things.
His younger, bigger, tougher brother, Zus (Liev Schreiber) is a firebrand. Although the Bielski Partisans engage small "hunting parties" in firefights, Zus believes the battle can be better fought on a larger scale, and joins the Red Partisans. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism within the Soviet ranks makes him an outsider, and he eventually returns to his brothers.
Schrieber, whose physical presence is imposing, plays Zus by tapping into some deep reservoir of anger within himself. It's an impressive performance, by far the strongest in the film.
Asael is younger, as is Aron, and both younger brothers dedicate themselves to forming a structured community for the growing forest community, establishing schools for the children, an infirmary for the ill, workshops for non-combatants, where they repaired rifles, loaded cartridges, sewed clothing, and built shelters and bunkers, and foraging parties that collected (by hook or by crook) food, tools, and other necessaries from the locals.
There are a number of large-scale battles between the German Army (supplied with tanks, machine guns and half-tracks) and the woefully underarmed Bielskis, which the Partisans, impossibly, win. Most of these battles have been "amplified" by the screenwriters for dramatic impact.
In all, some 1,200 Jews survived the war with the Bielski brothers. Asael Bielski was not among them. This film sheds light on a little-known chapter of the Holocaust, a chapter which had its counterparts in and around Kovno, Vilna, Warsaw, Lodz, Kiev, and in Western Europe as well.
This story, though it took place in Belarus, was filmed just across the border in Lithuania due to political reasons. As my father was a survivor of the Shoah from Lithuania, I was particularly interested in experiencing the views of the Lithuanian countryside this film provided.
on March 14, 2009
**This review contains spoilers**
By necessity, one must focus on the survivors if one wishes to create a workable film about the Holocaust. For its only through the eyes and ears of the survivors (and their tales of suffering) that we can appreciate the enormity, the scope of what occurred to the victims of the Holocaust. Paradoxically, the tales of the survivors are nothing more than anomalies--which may give the wrong impression to the uninformed that the Holocaust was an ennobling event--that these tales of survival were somehow the rule rather than the exception.
Defiance is one such anomalous tale. Some critics have likened it to a critique of Jewish passivity--that the overwhelming majority of Jews went to their deaths without putting up a fight. And certainly that reputation is reinforced in 'Defiance' as the protagonists, Tuvia and Zus Bielski, stand out as Jewish outsiders who aren't afraid to fight the Nazis as opposed to the majority of the Jewish 'intellectuals', mostly freshly minted refugees from the ghetto, who end up as part of the Bielski 'community' within the Byelorussian forest.
But there is an excellent scene in Defiance, where Tuvia sneaks into the ghetto and confronts the head of the Jewish committee there, that demonstrates that the average Jew was not passive--simply bewildered and overwhelmed. Can you really blame the head of the Jewish committee when he doesn't believe Tuvia's tales of genocide? He says, 'yes, we've heard these stories, but who can really believe them?' Reports of atrocities reached the United States during the War but they were not really appreciated until the actual newsreel photos of truckloads of emaciated bodies were seen being bulldozed into ditches at Bergen-Belsen after the war was over.
The opening scenes of 'Defiance' are testament to the brutally swift nature of the Nazi genocide. In most cases, there was simply no time to think about resisting (or escaping). The Nazis came in, along with the help of the local authorities in the occupied territories and murdered the Jews in the blink of an eye. We see this very effectively illustrated in 'Defiance' after the Bielskis find their parents murdered on the family farm.
One of the picture's strengths is that it also illustrates the role of the local collaborators who assisted the Nazis. In a dazzlingly effective scene, Tuvia takes revenge by shooting the local police chief and his sons after they've murdered his parents. The collaborators aren't seen as monsters--quite the contrary, in a humanized portrait, the police chief begs for his life and insists he was forced to act at the bidding of his superiors in the Nazi occupation force (in an earlier scene, the police chief comes to a farm looking for one of the Bielski brothers who hides in a barn after attacking a group of Nazis--here the police chief is much more crass and arrogant--but still all too human!).
Nonetheless, Zwick, the film's director, should have had another scene involving the collaborators to balance out the 'sympathetic' portrait. The truth of the matter was that there were other of these local collaborators who were outright sadists, capable of incomprehensible, monstrous acts of brutality. Similarly, Zwick shows us a group of Jews in the forest who end up savagely beating a captured German soldier to death (despite his cries that he has a wife and children). While such acts of revenge did occur, it's hard to appreciate the context for their actions (it would have been better if Zwick had actually shown the Bielski parents, for example, being murdered and not merely the aftermath).
A good deal of 'Defiance' explores the conflict between the two brothers. Tuvia is the pragmatic one who comes to accept his role as a new 'Moses', leading his beleaguered group of 'intellectuals' to safety through the forest. At first he has only contempt for his fellow Jews who he regards as cowardly and passive. But as time passes, they earn his respect as they all become more proactive. Zus, on the other hand, wants to take direct action against the Nazis and joins the Soviet partisans as one of their fighters. I thought that the characterization of the Russians was one of the strongest parts of the movies. They are depicted sympathetically--shown both for their courage and brutality (Zus eventually leaves the partisans after he can no longer tolerate their anti-semitic stance).
A good part of 'Defiance' is taken up showing life in the forest camp. The characterizations are a mixed bag. Some of the characters are standard 'types' (the debate between the 'intellectual' vs. the 'spiritual' Jew is one such example). There are some good scenes depicting the malnourishment that the community had to endure along with a few obligatory romances. One scene I had a hard time believing was when Tuvia kills one of the food hunters who insists that his group gets extra portions of rations. Did that really happen? I'm not sure but it made for good drama.
I like Daniel Craig in this role a lot more than as James Bond; he gives a solid performance as an unlikely savior for his people. And Lev Schreiber is excellent as the tough as nails partisan who eventually reunites with his brother after a fractured relationship.
Defiance's final scene focuses on the community battling and defeating a large group of Nazi soldiers backed up by a tank. I'm told that this is what actually happened but the way the whole thing is staged seemed a little hard to believe. Nonetheless, Defiance is a film that will keep you absorbed from the opening credits. As a little known history lesson, it does its job. And certainly it was a worthy project to commemorate the deeds of the heroic Bielski brothers.
on January 18, 2009
Story about Jews fleeing Nazi death squads in Belorussia who fight back against their occupiers and survive for years in forest hideouts. Very moving story and quite well-acted. The R rating is mind-boggling. I've seen PG-13 movies with more graphic violence. The profanity is sparse and never gratuitous. An excellent history lesson for teenagers, but the rating will keep many of them away (along with some adults). In the current climate of rising anti-Semitism and holocaust revisionism, this movie is unlikely to win awards, but it should.
This is a very crowded genre with a particular set of historical and political sensitivities that all place unusual, and somewhat atypical demands and expectations on a film. Many films have come before, some with unsurpassable results (e.g., Schindler's List), and the story told is obviously one of the most tragic of the modern era, so if you're going to make another Holocaust-related film, it better be outstanding (unless it purposely shatters all genre paradigms (i.e., Inglorious Basterds). That said, I don't think this movie rises to that level. Granted, the movie approaches the topic from a generally fresh perspective of a group of jews attempting to evade persecution by hiding out in the woods. I can't vouch for the historical veracity of the film's story, but, assuming its true, its a compelling story of the human will and drive to survive. But while the story succeeds at the macro level, it does not succeed at the micro level. While the high level depiction of a large group of people's attempts to survive are compelling, the story fails to develop a connection with individual characters that would otherwise turn this movie into something more powerful. Life experiences at the aggregate level are played at the expense of the individual story. Perhaps what I'm struggling to describe is my perception of poor character development. For example, Daniel Craig comes to be the leader of a particular group of jews, but his rise to that role is not well depicted. He starts out adamantly opposed to assuming responsibility for a group of people, only to quickly find himself gladly filling that role. Then in another vein, he opposes brutality (especially in not condoning his brother's behavior), but then does not hesitate to execute one of his group for insubordination. Now, perhaps this is all a faithful depiction of Daniel Craig's character, but the way the story unfolds, it leaves lots of character development gaps that would otherwise help bridge the viewer from the pacifist survivalist Craig to the person he becomes. The same goes for his brother; they were generally getting along, but then one day the brother gets a love interest, Daniel Craig makes a quip, then get into a fight, and then the brother joins a Communist militia-like unit. Huh? Again, perhaps the story is accurate, but its likely missing some key information that would otherwise enable the viewer to understand why the characters evolve as they do, and breathe a little more life into them. So in the end, its certainly worth a rental, but my caution would be to not expect a colossally moving epic.
on January 3, 2009
Belorussia in 1941. Germans and local collaborators hunt Jews. The Bielski brothers, in civilian times apparently not really choir boys, escape into the forests and attract followers, other refugees, who are desperate for help. A camp in the forest, an unsteady symbiosis with Russian troops nearby. Raids for food can't avoid getting noticed by the German army, whose attacks follow; the camp has to run. The refugees find another location for a camp. Apparently based on true events.
The film is about big subjects: strategy, leadership, discipline, solidarity. No surprises,just basic constellations and human conflicts. Wonderful cinematography. Solid work by Mr.Zwick (who apparently has a personal relation to the real Bielskis; family?). Good show by Mr.James Bond as Tuvia Bielski; the other actors do well too (but I don't know them).
This brilliant movie tells the true story of the Bielski partisans -- a band of Jewish survivors who hid in the forests of Belorussia during World War II and fought the Nazis.
It comes with all the bells and whistles of a classic war movie but it's so much more that that -- this is a movie with many important moral messages to impart about survival, commmunity, human dignity and resistance.
Daniel Craig gives a powerful performance as Tuvia Bielski, the group's leader -- all the more powerful for its understatement. Liev Schreiber is just as good as his brother Zus, who wants only to fight and kill to avenge the awful personal losses the family has endured.
If this were only a movie about men fighting a vastly superior force, it would be incredible enough. But Tuvia Bielski opened his camp to all survivors -- the old, the young, the sick, women, children. No-one was turned away. It's amazing to contemplate how they survived two bitter Russian winters with little or no food. Yet by the time of the liberation, they were running a school in the middle of the forest.
Incredibly, the brothers managed to save the lives of 1,200 people. Today, some 19,000 people are alive who would not have been were it not for their heroism.
There are many exciting battle scenes and tender love scenes and interesting secondary characters -- but the central metaphor comes when the band of refugees is forced to flee German armor and air power and find themselves wading through a massive swamp, holding on to each other's belts. It's an image that looks back to the exodus from Egypt -- although one of the brothers states that God will not save them this time and will not part the waters. Only by employing their own strength, determination and persistence will they survive.
In another painful scene, a German soldier is captured and then bludgeoned to death. Tuvia Bielski does not try to intervene. He understands that although he aspires to a higher moral standard, the cry for revenge among people who have been reduced by their enemies to animals, have been mistreated, humiliated and degraded and have seen their loved ones massacred cannot be appeased without blood. It is also an acknowledgment that to fight a monstrous force like Nazi Germany, a certain brutal ruthlessness is sometimes required.
The extra features on this DVD include interviews with family members of the Bielskis, who went on to build lives in the United States and some haunting photographs of survivors by director Edward Zwick.
See this movie. It's an amazing story that will change your perceptions of the Holocaust.
on September 9, 2013
There are things that I know are really good, such as Rembrandt's paintings, that I just don't like. On the other hand, there are Zwick's films like The Last Samurai and Legends of the Fall, which are kitsch both artistically and historically, but which I love. Therefore I sometimes have an issue with Amazon's rating system - I like this movie, though it rates three stars in terms of quality.
I think we are all old enough to know that in appealing to the broad American public in order to make money there are certain conventions which Hollywood adheres to. Sure, I would have preferred to see the Bielski Brothers portrayed as the very young men that they were during this period. Or to have the relationship [ established prior to the German invasion]and the political differences between the Bielskis' and the Red Army commanders explained rather than dumbed down to plain old antisemitism. Or not have Daniel Craig making Braveheart type speeches from astride his white horse, or take on a tank corps almost single- handed. And yet, despite that and despite the controversy about what the partisans did and didn't do or how they treated the peasantry, the subject of this film --survival instead of passive acceptance- is a fascinating and important one. The fact is, the times were terrible, groups splintered along ethnic, national and political lines, fought each other occasionally and all appropriated food from the peasantry. All did what they had to do to ensure their own survival and/or that of their group.
I really thought this was Craig's deepest role, and he did show torment, indecision, brutality along with kindness and remorse very well -angst, fear, and torment are hardly exclusive to more recent generations. Additionally his brother Zus was very candidly shown as a brutal man, callous toward the peasantry, relentless in his extermination of all those whom he perceived as being collaborators, and yet as a brave man who took up the gun to fight. What was so interesting to me was that this group, whatever its moral and ethical shortcomings in life, managed to form a community with a school, an infirmary, kitchens etc in the heart of the forest and lived to see the end of the war. Also interesting is that these people followed the Bielskis, [emerging as strong men in troubled times] whom they would have spurned for their lowly social position and rude ways prior to the war. The forest btw and the scenery was absolutely gorgeous.
on January 25, 2010
I was completely unaware of this chapter of WWII history.
Having recently watched this movie with my 14-year old son, I found it quite moving. My son is in a 'guns-are-awesome' period, and I think this movie (thankfully) put a slight damper on his ardor. For me, I haven't been this haunted by a movie since I saw "Platoon" in college in the late '80's. (Not a bad thing to be haunted by a movie, methinks.)
While I'm sure this movie is far from accurate (the final scene with the tank was a bit over-the-top), the gift this movie gives is bringing the story of these Polish survivors to the world. The acting was first rate ... I very much enjoyed watching the brothers interact with each other. Hollywood machismo was (happily!) tossed aside here. These brothers struggle, cry, disagree, reunite, fight, embrace and kiss.
How wonderful to see movie stars act like real men for a change. Daniel Craig, for instance, was so much more three dimensional in this movie than in any of his Bond films (films which are fun to watch when you're in the mood for such things. They are just more 2 dimensional).
I think this would be an excellent film for college and groups for discussion of community and honor and right choices ... and so much more. My son and I watched this movie on DVD. There were several places where we stopped the movie and had interesting, "Ok, you are Tuvia. What would you do right now?" conversations. (My son puts up with a lot from me. ;-D)
I certainly intend on reading the book to learn more about these brave people who lived in the woods for over 2 years to escape the horrors of the Holocaust.
on January 17, 2009
AWESOME! One of the absolute best war flicks i've ever seen, and a true story to boot. I was riveted in my seat for 2+ hours! And i cried too. Go see this movie if you want to feel alive and learn something historical and worthwhile.