Wednesday, January 27, 2010


"Defiance" (Edward Zwick, 2008) 1941 and the Nazis have invaded Bellarussia,* rounding up the Jews, separating child from parent and slaughtering them, often with the help of quisling neighbors. Four brothers (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, George MacKay) find their parents murdered, their home ransacked and take to the woods in survivalist mode, evading capture first, and then, discovering other families hiding in the forest, organize them. What starts as a personal quest for revenge—taking offensive action against their oppressors—turns into an experiment in existence. They start with one pistol and four bullets.

It's a good start.

Conducting raids on local Nazi strongholds and supporters, they're able to confiscate food, weapons, and medicine, as a steady stream of survivors join their ranks and task their supplies, but the brothers manage the skills of the refugees to create make-shift shelters, even a hospital, in the Naliboki Forest, all of
which must be adandoned when word of imminent attack reaches them. A practical commune with no regard for class in the "outside" world, both men and women are trained as fighters, schools created to share knowledge among the partisans, all things being equal.

Like many stories of wartime before it,
it is a case of losing your family in order to find another, and the Bielski boys, who not only lose their parents, but also wives and children in the genocide, find themselves patriarchs, protectors and governors. Along the way, they split over how best to carry out their survival—as assassins or as a shred of civilization in the wild—but ultimately see it as a situation where the only absolute is survival, by any means necessary, defying the Nazis hunting them, while rejecting the tactics of their oppressors.

More than 1200 of the Bielski Otriad walked out of the forest, after the war. True story.

Craig, as oldest brother Tuvia Bielski, with more of a war-face than the one he wears as James Bond, does a fine job of etching a performance from withholding emotion. He's matched by Schrieber, as his more volatile brother, and director Zwick, whose record as a director is spotty (but broaches subjects others are loathe to touch—watch "Special Bulletin" or his pre-9/11 "The Siege" sometime) makes one of those interesting movies that challenges the viewer and makes subtle points, and still works as an entertainment that keeps you wondering what will happen next. But more than the explosions and the fire-fights, it's a movie of how a small band of refugees attempted an experiment in civilization, when the rest of the world—even the United States—had seemed to abandon it.

After the war, Tuvia Bielski moved to Israel, then moved to the United States where he lived the rest of his life.

1981 portrait of Lilka and Tuvia Bielski flanking their children

* For you sticklers, it became Belarus in 1991.

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