My Favourite Movies: Defiance
Eastern Europe 1941. As the German army movies into Russia it starts its long term project to eliminate the local Jewish population. Caught up in the middle of events are small time crooks and trouble makers the Bielski brothers, played by Daniel Craig, Live Schreiber and Jamie Bell. Luckily for them the older brothers were not on their farm when the Germans arrived and the younger managed to hide during the roundup of their family, neighbours and friends. Now the question is what to do next. The rational thing seems to run and hide – exactly what they do when being chased by the local authorities. But this time they, almost by accident, start accumulating responsibilities in the guise of other refugees from the fighting. With more mouths to feed each day and with winter coming they must form a community in the deep forest and hope to survive as long as possible. But when Zus Bielski (Schreiber) is told of the death of his wife and child he swears bloody vengeance on all those involved and joins with local Russian partisans to fight back and kill as many Germans as he can before he himself is killed. Meanwhile his brother Tuvia (Craig) tries to hold his largely civilian group together through food shortages, disease, in-fighting and advancing German troops.
At the heart of this true story of resistance and survival is the relationship of the two older brothers Zus and Tuvia (Schreiber and Craig) as they go their separate ways in response to different internal drivers and different objectives – Tuvia wanting to save as many lives as possible and Zus wanting as much revenge as possible. Both approaches are shown as being a valid response to events unfolding around them though both have their price on the brothers themselves (and their relationship) and on the people around them. The film does not linger too much on any one aspect of their plight. The horror of the executions, the ghettos and the ever present fear is contrasted with the building of a community in the woods, by marriages, love and hope. The action, when it takes place, escalates from small engagements to a dramatic finale which is reasonably impressive. The violence is there, never far below the surface, as you might expect. Sometimes it can be shockingly random or equally shockingly focused, brutal and almost casual but it’s all in context and never drifts into meaninglessness. The two main characters, in particular Craig who I have a serious soft-spot for, are masterful and a joy to watch most especially when they are both on screen. Most of the main characters, not surprisingly, are the Jewish protagonists but there are several Russian secondary characters to add something else to the mix (and nicely contrasts Russian/Soviet prejudice against the Jews with the infinitely more deadly German variety). Oddly the Germans hardly get a look in. The only Germans we really see are on the receiving end of either Jewish or Russian bullets in ambushes and occasional stand-up fights. But I suppose that this is to be expected considering the viewpoint of the film.
Overall this is a very good character driven story of survival against quite ridiculous odds in an environment and at a time that could hardly be more dangerous and extreme. The knowledge that this really happened makes it all the more gripping and jaw-dropping awful. Above all the fighting and the killing is the strength and the courage to live one more day as an act of defiance in itself. If you missed this 2008 film for whatever reason I advise you to give it a go. It’s definitely a cut above the average.