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That the power of Edward Zwick's Defiance derives from the body of Holocaust films made in the past several decades is interesting precisely because Defiance itself is not one of them. The difference becomes clear in a scene toward the end, as members of a Jewish rear guard fall in battle with advancing Germans. They've died the death of soldiers, not as death-camp fodder. They have been able to fight back.
Defiance brushes up against the Holocaust, lightly at the beginning — unpleasant but muffled views of shootings and ditches — but more in earnest later on, when Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) pleads with the Jewish Elder (Mark Margolis) from whose ghetto Jews are being systematically removed. The Elder cannot believe that the Nazis mean to kill all the Jews. "They need us!" the old man insists. That Tuvia knows better can be taken for granted, because we certainly know better. We know what's going to happen to the docile-looking women who, just before this scene, are shown filing along, presumably into some unspeakable conveyance. We know what the Jews who decide to follow Tuvia into the Belarussian forest will be spared, so long as they manage to stay at large. Defiance never looks back; it doesn't have to.
So well do we know the story that Defiance doesn't tell that we're prepared to be engaged by just about anything that it has to offer. I am not sure that we would find the film to be nearly as interesting as we do if it were not for the offscreen boxcars, gas chambers, and smokestacked crematoria. Tuvia and Zus (Liev Schreiber), two rustic brothers, resentful of the contempt with which educated town Jews treat them, find that they have the advantage when only the forest affords a refuge from the Nazis. But the brothers disagree about most things, particularly pride of place, and Zus soon leaves to join a Russian detachment camped nearby.
The body of the film is a hearty stew of sorties, skirmishes, and snappy comebacks. At one point, Tuvia gets sick, and, as he fades, his authority is challenged by a no-good-nik (Sam Spruell) whom Tuvia rallies to put down. Later there is an heroic escape through the marshes. Germans attack; Zus appears out of nowhere to save the day. As the brothers lead their followers away from the battlefield (and from the film's very rudimentary storytelling), a scrolling text informs us that the Jews would spend two more years in the forest, building a hospital, a nursery, &c &c. We learn that, after the war, the surviving Bielski brothers emigrated to New York, where they lived out their lives without fanfare.
But the real excitement comes from our knowledge of the fate worse than death called "the Holocaust." That awareness, in concert with a host of fine performances, makes Defiance riveting. In any mortal adventure, men and women face death as a matter of course; but in this mortal adventure, they're menaced by something far more terrible. So long as they're armed and free, they're safe, even if a bullet takes their life. The point of Defiance is not the heroism of the Bielski brothers' resistance — which, for the matter of that, is repeatedly shown to be not so heroic — but rather its determination. By averting our eyes from the dehumanizing outrage at the heart of the Nazi story, Defiance shocks us into sensing its monstrosity afresh. (January 2009)
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