Tuvia (Daniel Craig): What did you do?
Isaac (Mark Feuerstein): I suppose you’d have to say I was – am – an intellectual.
Zus (Liev Schreiber): This is a job?
"Our revenge is to live. We may be hunted like animals but we will not become animals. We have all chosen this - to live free, like human beings, for as long as we can. Each day of freedom is a victory. And if we die trying to live, at least we die like human beings."
At a glance:
Based on a true holocaust story of Jewish survivors hiding in the forests of Belarussia, Defiance benefits from solid performances in an emotional war setting, and is only occasionally set back by Hollywood contrivances
During the Second World War, two Jewish brothers are forced to hide in the Belarussia woods when their family is killed by the Nazis. They are joined by hundreds of other Jews, all looking for a safe haven. Zus (Live Schreiber) would probably be happy to leave these lost souls, but Tuvia (Daniel Craig) feels the need to protect and provide for them. They build a forest camp and attempt to hide from vengeful locals from whom they’ve ‘borrowed’ food, and from always vigilant German patrols. There is conflict as well between the two brothers. Zus favors a hard line approach to survival, advocating acts of revenge and the killing of potential threats. Tuvia, perhaps the more natural leader of men, wants to impose a strict set of ethics on their endeavors to ensure they do not end up as morally tainted as their enemies.
Although framed within a ‘true’ story of Jewish persecution, the guts of this tale is the conflict between brothers, and later, the internal conflicts within the greater group of forest dwellers, and their battles against the perils of winter and shortages of food and medicine.
There’s nothing wrong with Defiance. It’s a solid war/survival movie. In such a drama-rich setting, and bolstered by its ‘true war story’ roots, Defiance felt like it could have achieved more than it does. Perhaps it suffers from a slightly uninspired screenplay riddled with one too many clichés. Perhaps some of the plot points feel like the work of a screenwriter, not of a real group of war refugees. For example, one of Tuvia’s rules is ‘no pregnancies’. He doesn’t feel they can provide for the needs of babies. Well, first of all, this doesn’t allow for any women who might already be pregnant when they arrive there (of course, this very situation comes up later). Second, newborn babies receive all they need to survive from their mothers for at least the first 6 months of their life. And finally, these survivors could be living in the forest for a long time – perhaps for the rest of their lives. What is the point of just surviving if there are no children to carry on after they are gone?
Still, Defiance does get most things right. The brothers’ relationship is solid, and perhaps the movie would have benefited if Zus had not gone missing for a big chunk of the film. Tuvia is an intriguing character; I wondered why, for example, he fought so hard to maintain a level of dignity, yet he made no move to stop his people from beating the captured German soldier to death. Likewise, Zus’s character is also thought-provoking. In wartime, are violent, semi-sadistic people like him of high value? His acts of heroism were enabled at least partly by his lust for revenge and his tolerance/love of killing.
There are also excellent performances across the board, and director Edward Zwick creates a sincere and believable mood and place in time using visual imagery. That’s not something that’s easy to do, and yet he’s done it here, and he’s done it before (in The Siege).
Other reviewers said:
"A harrowing story of bravery and survival, Defiance tells it Hollywood-style. Still, somehow the true-story courage bleeds through the at-times hokey formula scripting."
- Ross Anthony (Hollywood Report Card)