CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The words “World War II” bring to mind images of soldiers crawling up the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, facing down machine guns and dodging shrapnel.

The mere mention of The Holocaust raises visions of emaciated prisoners at Hitler’s concentration camps flashing before your eyes.

What makes the film “Defiance” so unique is that without ever seeing concentration camps and with barely any physical presence from the Germans, director Ed Zwick was able to tell the story of the Jews’ plight during World War II almost as masterfully as Stephen Spielberg did with “Schindler’s List.”

Directed by: Edward Zwick

Writers: Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick (screenplay) and Nechama Tec (book “Defiance: the Bielski Partisans”)

Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos

Seen at: Brattle Theater, Cambridge, Mass.

Running time: 137minutes

Rated: R

Zwick’s “Defiance” tells the true survival story of four Jewish brothers who were able to evade capture by the Germans by creating camps in the forests of Poland for over three years until the end of the war.

Zwick used the heroic story of the Bielski brothers and their staunch will to survive to represent the untold story of Jews that were not bound to concentration camps.

The fear and pain etched into the faces of the refugees who traveled with the Bielskis and started to learn hope and love again before the Germans came too close, forcing them all to flee start all over again, told a story deeper than its history.

“Defiance” covers a span of little over a year, starting with the Germen’s destruction of the Bielski’s hometown in Poland and ending during one of many near-death escapes from the Germans, who continue to try to find the folklore-ish Jews hiding from them in the woods.

Over the course of that year, and the two subsequent ones that are discussed in the text following the movie, the Bielski brothers gathered a following of fellow Jews who were evading German capture — a following which eventually numbered close to 1200 people. Zwick admitted in an interview that he took liberties with some of the forest camp-dwellers’ stories, but each of the characters created represented a small piece of the bigger picture.

The opening of the film, which was a combination of historical footage and attached textual facts, felt more like the opening scenes of a documentary than the opening of a dramatic film. Though “Defiance” regulated itself about five minutes in once the actual film footage started rolling, the opening sequence was the only part of the movie that felt off-kilter. From the second the documentary footage dissolved into a filmed scene of the German’s attacking the Bielski’s hometown, “Defiance” was flawless.

Zwick drew moving performances from his leading men: Daniel Craig (Tuvia Bielski) and Liev Schreiber (Zus Bielski). Craig shed his ice-blue Bond stare for actual emotion, and Schreiber offered an equally touching performance.

Two performances that really stood out were those of Mark Feurerstein and Allan Corduner, playing a scholar and a rabbi.. Their banter throughout the movie not only provided some much needed comedic relief from the film’s somber and dramatic tone, but the relationship that so beautifully developed between the characters that had such distinctly delineated views on the world was just one of many insights Zwick made about the basis of human nature.

In a scene where a German is caught snooping too close to the forest camp and gets captured by Aron Bielsky, the youngest brother, and the Jews in the camp start mobbing around the soldier, it’s not just another scene about the Jews versus the Germans. It’s about one group of people rebelling against all the injustices in the world. When one woman cried out, “You killed my son! He was only fifteen! He had blue eyes!” before being the first to slam the butt of her rifle into the solider, the agony in her voice was such that any person, ignorant of the persecution of the Jews or not, felt tears fill their eyes in empathy.

What was most important was that “Defiance” wasn’t a story about the Holocaust. It wasn’t about World War II. It was about survival and faith and hope and love.

About The Author

Terri Schwartz was a Blast Contributing Editor from 2008-2009.

One Response

Leave a Reply