As I sit here in a Midtown cafe, sipping a latte and gazing leisurely at the late-season Christmas lights as dusk settles over this well-heated monument to 21st-century consumer pleasures, it’s hard to imagine the potential for chaos.
But what would life be like if, say, a group of armed fanatics went about shooting and arresting every foreigner they could find, and I was forced to flee, with nothing more than the clothes on my back, into hiding on the wintry slopes of Mount Takao?
One thing I can say about director Edward Zwick’s “Defiance” is that whatever its flaws — and overly Hollywoodizing its grim, real-life subject is a big one — it definitely made me feel what the above scenario would be like, the utter desperation and animal-like struggle for survival in the face of brutal repression.
“Defiance” deals with the Holocaust, or more particularly, the Jews who didn’t go quietly to the death camps. Zwick’s film focuses on a real-life group of Belarusian Jews who formed a partisan force in the forests after fleeing the SS death squads and fought back hard, while taking in and protecting over 1,000 others. Call it the “Rambo” version of “Schindler’s List.”
Beginning with grainy old black-and-white footage of Adolf Hitler ranting and Jewish civilians being rounded up by grinning German soldiers, “Defiance” suddenly fades into color, showing the aftermath of a raid on one farm: bodies everywhere. Three brothers avoid this massacre — Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and little Aron Bielski (George Mackay) — and they immediately flee deep into the surrounding woods, where they meet more survivors, including their eldest brother, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), who quickly becomes the de facto leader.
Tuvia’s first task is to borrow a revolver from a neighbor, and go take revenge on the Polish police who led the Germans to his family. Then comes the task of how to survive in the woods, to find food, shelter and arms, and to cope with the increasing number of refugees. The movie plays up the sibling rivalry between Zus, a hotheaded pragmatist who wants to kill Germans and doesn’t want the responsibility of more mouths to feed, and Tuvia, who feels that every Jewish life saved is the best revenge. Eventually, Zus and Tuvia come to blows, and Zus leaves to join a Soviet partisan unit, a major deviation from the real-life story. Tuvia must carry on alone as winter sets in, typhus rages and the Nazis plan a search-and-destroy operation against his camp.
Zwick — like many a Vietnam-era boomer who didn’t fight in the war — has a clear admiration for those who find redemption in battle; just think of those driven black soldiers in “Glory,” or Tom Cruise’s turn from drunkenness to a cause in “The Last Samurai.”
“Defiance” communicates well the moral imperative of resistance, while also showing the agonizing decisions that war forces upon an individual: So you steal some milk from a farmer to survive, but not all of it. Do you kill him? No, that would be inhumane, and he hasn’t done anything. But then the farmer goes to the Germans and leads them to your forest hideout . . . compassion for one life has now led to possible death for the hundreds in your care. So next time, do you kill the farmer?
Craig is quite good at agonizing about these choices in an internalized way, much as he did as another “tough Jew” in “Munich.” You can sense the vacillation within the man between the need to make hard decisions and the need to remain human, to not “become like them.” Zwick may paint Tuvia as a bit too much of a saint, though, and as we all know, saints usually wind up dead. The real Bielski, on whom his character is based, managed to keep Jews in the surrounding villages safe by a threat, widely believed to be real, that if a Jew was turned over, the entire village would be burned down.
“Defiance” can be surprisingly hokey at times. Typical is a scene where new refugees arrive at the Bielskis’ camp, and we see a couple of peasant woman kvetching: “Ach, more mouths to feed!” says one; “And more young bodies to keep us warm!” says the other, their forced laughter and strained “borscht belt” accents bringing to mind some hammy 1940s or ’50s period piece, not the realism Zwick is striving for. Whether it’s the just-in-the-nick-of-time arrival of reinforcements, or the shots of Craig on a splendid white horse (just to ram home the point he’s The Good Guy), it sometimes seems like Zwick never met a cliche he didn’t like. (Anyone remember that shower of cherry blossoms during the climactic battle of “The Last Samurai”?)
But despite Zwick’s tendency to find a prefab moment for every scene, there are also times when the film does ring true, where its story of survival against all odds reaches out across the decades and grabs you by the neck and gasps: Look how hard this was, look at how unjust, how cruel, how dehumanizing. Yet we survived. Could you?