3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
It's with guilty hesitation that I hail the true Holocaust survival story “Defiance” as truly entertaining. Based on Nechama Tec's book, “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans,” about a throng of Polish Jews who evaded the Germans and created a Sherwood Forest-like sanctuary, the movie version is action-packed, reasonably fast-paced, even laugh-laden. But, wait a minute, wasn't there supposed to be some profound historical commentary oiling this machine? Apparently not. “Defiance” is not a Holocaust movie enhanced by blockbuster adventure; it's a blockbuster adventure that just happens to be set during the Holocaust. Though directed (and co-written) by Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond,” “The Last Samurai”), it feels like what “Schindler's List” might have become if Michael Bay had stepped in for Steven Spielberg. Zwick's insistence on molding his latest into little more than your basic popcorn crowd-pleaser forbids it from ever scratching beneath the surface of its sensitive subject matter. The only way it engages the heart is by getting the blood pumping.
The Bielskis of the book title are four brothers from Eastern Poland: Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron, who are played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and 16-year-old George MacKay, respectively. In the film's laughably exploitative opening sequence (which uses grainy footage to evoke realism but, realistically, only evokes B-movie gratuitousness), nearly all the inhabitants of the Bielski brothers' village, including their mother and father, are slaughtered by Nazis. Zus, Asael, and Aron escape, retreating into the surrounding forests of what is now Belarus, where they reunite with Tuvia who was off doing something rather immaterial to the plot. As their grief subsides, the brothers, who are soon joined by other refugees, struggle with what to do next. Some, like the hot-headed Zus, are hungry for vengeance, and head to the still-within-walking-distance ghettos to exact it not only on Nazis but on the traitorous Jews who helped them. Others, like Aron, fall mute, deadened by the shock of unfathomable circumstances. After having his own taste of revenge, Tuvia eventually decides that retaliation is not the answer and that simply staying alive is as bold an act of defiance as any. Like Robin of Poland or Tuvia of Locksley (take your pick), he assumes the role of forest-dwelling freedom fighter, and as word of his heroic leadership spreads through the Jewish underground, what began as a dozen fellow escapees turns into a hundred, then a thousand, and so on. Thus, the wooded shelter becomes the makeshift home to a struggling but self-sustaining community, complete with log huts, campfire meals, and “forest marriages.”
It's senseless to address the implausibilities of this story (such as where and how these penniless people got an arsenal of tools to build their bungalows) because it's all essentially born from truth. How those truths are handled, however, is another beast entirely. With the exception of the lush visuals by two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Eduardo Serra (it's certainly the greenest title in the Holocaust canon), “Defiance” exhibits hardly a single ounce of grace. Zwick's and Clayton Frohman's screenplay adaptation is a prosaic assemblage of all the trappings of every densely-populated disaster flick this side of “The Poseidon Adventure.” There's a huge cast of secondary characters, many of whom are present solely for comic relief and all of whom participate in inevitable, annoyingly unproductive arguments. There are love interests, of course (the “forest wives”), the prettiest of whom land in the arms of the Bielski brothers, of course. There's plenty of crude humor that will amuse simpletons but insult sophisticates. There's cheap and obvious sentimentality that's wrung out of scenes like dishwater from a rag. There's bag-over-the-head symbolism prancing around like those ringside, bikini-clad babes who hold up signs at boxing matches. You want examples? When news breaks of Tuvia's wife's death (which is no spoiler if you've ever seen a film about genocide), violins literally begin to play. After a pseudo-alliance is made with neighboring Soviet partisans, Tuvia returns to his arboreous abode literally riding a white horse. You get the picture.
The action, which arrives at once and rarely lets up, serves the movie well in that it draws the attention away from the pitfalls. The effects and stunts are exciting and explosive and filmed as well as – or, perhaps, better than – one would expect from a movie of this magnitude. But, despite my pounding pulse, I felt a huge wave of remorse crash over me while being entertained by all this, like I was a willful spectator in the sport of these people's misfortune. “Defiance” doesn't play like it's faithfully telling an amazing story and honoring its subjects. It's more the sort of thing that uses history as a springboard to fire off rounds and blow stuff up. However well intended and however well staged (and, at times, well acted – Schreiber is excellent), the finished product feels terribly contrived, leaving the impression that Zwick had more regard for the ticket holders than for the forest community's descendants (of which, we learn at the end, there are tens of thousands).
The one concept “Defiance” does manage to drive home effectively is that not all European Jews went quietly to their deaths during WWII. It not only illustrates this fact but repeatedly reinforces it in the dialogue. It's the one true thing that eeks its way out of the fray of gimmicks and gunshots because, ironically enough, it's more powerful than both. Why didn't anyone tell the filmmakers?