Defiance

“Jews don’t fight,” the Russian commander in Defiance snarls at the new recruit, who is a fierce fighter against the Nazis—and a Jew.

Most movies with WWII and Holocaust themes give the false impression that all European Jews were willing victims in their own destruction. The truth is that 10,000 to 20,000 Jews, were “partisans,” who fought the Nazis with guerilla attacks, sabotage and other acts of armed resistance. Only young men and women who could endure the rigors of partisan life were accepted by such groups.

There was one Jewish partisan group known for its anti-Nazi exploits as well as its willingness to save the lives of all Jews–young and old, men and women, laborers and scholars. Lead by three peasant brothers, this group survived for over two years in the forests of eastern Poland and saved over 1,200 lives.

While constantly facing Nazi onslaughts from ground and air and often on the run, they built a thriving community. They lived in underground huts, scavenging the countryside for food, stealing weapons as they could. Defying the specter of despair, they kept their faith alive, yet it was never easy. One day, the rabbi begs God, “Choose another people!”

Based on the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec, the movie dramatizes the essence of this remarkable true story. Under the sure guidance of director/co writer Ed Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai), himself a descendant of East European Jews, Defiance seamlessly alternates between action war flick, history lesson, love story, religious debate and character study of three brothers who can’t decide if they want to embrace or beat one another bloody. They’re heroes, but not saints.

Defiance is beautifully shot in the forests and swamps of Lithuania (about 100 miles away from the actual location in Poland) and replete with fine performances. At 137 minutes, it’s a tad long, but I guarantee you’ll agree, “this is one movie I’m not going to forget.”

It opens with a terrifying montage of the 1941 Nazi invasion of Poland and the brutal round-up of Jews throughout the country. The Bielski brothers escape the city’s ghetto and return to their family farm where they find their elderly parents slaughtered. The only place they can live without being hunted down is deep within the nearby forest. They set up camp and soon more wretched escapees join them. Oldest brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig, Quantum of Solace) will not turn anyone away. He would rather save one old woman, he says, than kill ten Nazis. “Our revenge is to live!” he vows.

The desperate conditions inevitably bring out both the best–and the worst–in human nature, and this gritty portrayal of reality is one of Defiance‘s greatest accomplishments. Tuvia insists camp members concentrate on survival rather than vengeance against the Nazis. “We must not become like them!”

“No,” hot-headed brother Zus (Liev Schreiber, Manchurian Candidate) replies, “but at least we can kill like them.” He leaves to join the Soviet troops.

Slivers of civilized life miraculously endure. There are chess games and violin playing, even romance. The youngest brother, Asail (Jamie Bell, Flags of Our Fathers) wins the hand of Bella (Mia Wasikowska, TVs In Treatment), the girl he rescued, and Tuvia falls in love with Lilka (Alexa Davalos, The Mist), who nurses him back to life when felled by typhus. In the harshness of war, women no longer played traditional roles. Working and fighting side by side with men, the women of the Bielski camp shared equally the burdens and the triumphs of survival.

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