Daniel Craig portrays Tuvia Bielski in “Defiance,” a Paramount Vantage release.
Director Edward Zwick set out to present the tale of the Bielski partisans – in particular, the story of four Jewish brothers in Eastern Poland who, after finding their family and friends slaughtered or abducted by the Nazis, seek shelter in the forest and eventually join forces with Soviet partisans to fight the occupation.
Zwick’s movie is an adaptation of Nechama Tec’s book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans,” which is based on the true story about how a group of Polish Jews united for protection and survival.
Initially focused on their own continued existence, brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay) soon find other Jewish refugees flocking to them for direction.
Craig’s portrayal of Tuvia is the best thing “Defiance” has going for it. The actor captures the internal havoc beautifully as the character wrestles with the unwanted role of leadership, sibling rivalry, the horrors confronting him on a daily basis and the hopelessness he fears but cannot divulge.
Schreiber’s embittered Zus provides a stark contrast to Craig’s principled Tuvia. Where Tuvia seeks to endure by withdrawing into a forest sanctuary and avoiding direct confrontation with the Nazis, Zus feels the need to take the fight to the enemy. What is crucial here – and Zwick doesn’t always succeed in getting the point across – is that both tactics constitute a form of resistance.
Few other characters are as well developed as these two. In fact, many, such as the sophisticated Jewish intellectuals or the stubborn Soviet partisans, deteriorate into stereotypes. In trying to make a point about the significance of the resistance movement, Zwick fashions a black-and-white view of the circumstances populated by two-dimensional characters.
What’s worse, though, is that Zwick takes certain liberties with history.
The setting, for one, is a bit unclear to those who don’t know the history of the area. Just prior to the German occupation, the area was under Soviet control; before that, it was part of the Second Polish Republic. Borders shifted frequently, but half the area’s population was made up of Poles, with fewer Belarusians. Zwick seems to ignore the Polish component.
Though the film repeatedly tries to express that Tuvia’s goal is survival, not retribution, Zwick ultimately squelches the message by concocting a climatic battle scene that seems designed to do nothing more than leave audiences with a sense of closure.
Most unsettling is the fact that Zwick, in attempting to extol the actions of these largely unsung heroes, may have inadvertently suggested that selecting any other path was somehow less noble. In one scene, Tuvia enters a ghetto under Nazi control and meets with a Jewish councilman, trying to convince him and the remaining denizens to flee into the woods. While the sentiment is left unspoken, the unintended implication is that choosing to remain is illogical, foolish or dishonorable.
This is another example of Zwick’s black-and-white, right-or-wrong perception and portrayal of the events.
In the end, “Defiance” succeeds as an entertaining war-time drama but, ironically, it fails to adequately pay tribute to accomplishments of the Bielski brothers because it tries to compress the tale into a tidy Hollywood package.
Hollywood and history rarely make good bedfellows. Film-makers bring to the table their own objectives, their own perception of events and their own messages to convey. Zwick certainly deserves credit for promoting awareness of the Bielski brothers. It’s unfortunate that the director felt it necessary to conform to Hollywood conventions at the expense of the story.
Area museum hosts exclusive Bielski exhibition
Courage and Compassion: The Legacy of the Bielski Brothers, an exclusive exhibit which tells the story behind the movie “Defiance,” is on display through February at the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S., St. Petersburg.
Presented nationally by Bank of America, the multi-media exhibition showcases the heroic efforts of the Bielski brothers who helped save more than 1,200 people while living in the forest during World War II.
Courage and Compassion features graphic photo and text panels that describe pre-war life, victimization of Jews in World War II, and life in the forest for the Bielski group. Four video monitors show clips of survivor testimony. The exhibit also includes a large collection of artifacts, including Tuvia’s shirt made in the forest, tools used to dig the longest escape tunnel ever built, original documents and a variety of additional objects used in the forest.