Compelling stories that are rooted in real history make good movies when production is well executed. In fact, when well done, historically based stories like "Defiance" resonate much more meaningfully than any piece of fiction can.
Recently, it was the Oscar winning "Milk" that left me scouring the World Wide Web for hours upon arriving back home. I'm admittedly naïve when it comes to some things, and certainly history is on that list. The story of Harvey Milk, though, is one I'm thankful to now know. Oddly enough, I owe that to Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn.
To some degree, I now owe the same gratitude to Edward Zwick, who wrote (with Clayton Frohman) and directed "Defiance." Assuming everybody is at least aware of the Holocaust, I very much doubt that many have heard of the Bielski brothers.
"Defiance," much like "Milk," sets the stage initially with archival footage. We are subjected to black and white images of Nazi soldiers going about their savage duties rounding up and sometimes shooting Jewish people. It is grim. It is grotesque. After a few moments of this, the screen shifts subtly from black and white into color and viola! "Defiance" begins.
We meet Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) first. The two brothers are crouched in the woods watching Nazi soldiers march. Being close to their parents' home, they quickly retreat to warn Mom and Dad.
They are too late -- but they do find their youngest brother, Aron (George MacKay), hiding underneath the floorboards. Suddenly, then, without any real chance to absorb what is happening, the Bielski brothers flee into the forest they know so well.
Initially it is Zus, the eldest of the three brothers in the woods, who takes charge. He has no plan except to try and keep Asael from crying.
The plan arrives, or at least the eventual plan, when oldest brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig) joins them unannounced one morning. With Tuvia's arrival Zwick wastes no time in showing us the tension between Tuvia and Zus; while Asael and Aron embrace their oldest brother with enthusiasm, Zus happens upon them with an armload of firewood and offers only passive-aggressive words. Despite all of the other major occurrences to come for the brothers and the hundreds of other Jewish people they encounter, the rivalry between Tuvia and Zus is something Zwick continues to focus on.
While it is obviously the Nazi army's relentless pursuit that drives the story forward, "Defiance" often manages to feel like a story about Zus and Tuvia. They just happen to be living during the Holocaust.
That may sound like the wrong way to tell a story involving the Holocaust, but the truth is that it works.
As the Bielski brothers unintentionally become the leaders of a rebel existence of Jews in the forest, the tension between Zus and Tuvia grows and eventually leads to Zus leaving the group and joining a Soviet fighting brigade. Each brother, now without his rival is forced to realize over time how necessary the other's existence really is.
Tuvia lacks Zus' will to act with violence when necessary; Zus lacks his brother's charisma.
History, unfolding for us on screen, does bring them back together - perhaps more dramatically than it did in real life - and although "Defiance" is filled with death and hardship, it is clear the Bielski brothers accomplished something amazing.
At first, they wished only to survive. By the time their group's existence was no longer necessary, though, they and over 1,000 Jews under their protection had done more than survive.
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