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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
15 Apr 2023

NextImg:Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Defiance’

R | 2 h 17 min | Drama, Biopic | 2008

“Every day of freedom is like an act of faith. Our revenge is to live.”

Those lines, uttered by the lead character in Edward Zwick’s film, capture its essence.

A professor of sociology and Holocaust survivor-scholar from Connecticut, Nechama Tec, once wrote a book that sets male heroism apart from, and above, macho bravado. Based on a true story, the book redefines heroes as those who avoid wanton violence, who won’t shy away from self-defense, but who would rather save lives than take them.

Tuvia (Daniel Craig) shelter dozens of Jewish refugees during World War II. (MovieStillsDB)

Zwick’s film, based on Tec’s book, is about Jews who hunt in a wilderness for the truth about themselves as a people, and find the resolve to preserve their traditions, even on the run.

In 1941, as Nazi death-squads comb conquered territories, only a few Jews survive. With their parents thus murdered, the Polish-Jewish Bielski brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George Mackay), hide in the Naliboki forest. Before they know it, they’re sheltering dozens of Jewish refugees who, likewise, seek cover.

The brothers raid farms on the forest fringe for food and supplies and, as word spreads, eventually lead 1,200 civilians (women, infants, children, men and old folk) through forests, under Nazi attack and Russian counterattack. Tens of thousands of their descendants are alive today because those refugees didn’t succumb to despair but stayed the course.

Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Tuvia (Daniel Craig) are brothers who endure the savage winter, the rain, snow, starvation, disease, darkness, and fatigue to escape the Nazis. (MovieStillsDB)

Screenwriters Zwick and Clayton Frohman liken this journey to the biblical Exodus, a sea of refugees trudging through a forest rather than a desert. Sometimes that lush, green forest cloaks them gently, like a protective god. At other times it seems uncaring, as loved ones die before their eyes. Crossing a treacherous swamp, not unlike a forbidding Red Sea, an exhausted refugee jokes, “What’s next…Sinai?!” Despite suffocating danger, they laugh.

It’s tempting to be distracted by Zwick’s combat or action sequences, but on scrutiny, his film is less about Jew rebels fighting alongside Russians or against Nazis. It’s about them fighting everything else: the savage winter, the rain, snow, starvation, disease, darkness, and fatigue. Often, forced to share already meager soup rations, they’re fighting each other.

Far from hagiography, the film shows the brothers as human; they are as flawed as their followers, but surviving in hiding, for as long as two years, through faith, togetherness, commonsense and grit. Just as in Exodus, the followers here show their leader, Tuvia, just enough gratitude to mask their grumbling.

Tuvia and Zus sport contrasting styles of leadership, one bent on rescue, the other on retribution. But they’re peasants, not soldiers. Thrust as heroes into a story that isn’t of their making, they force themselves to imagine a life beyond their deadly present, a future in which they needn’t flee or hide any longer.

Fiery Asael (Jamie Bell) escapes from the Nazis with his brothers. (MovieStillsDB)

Don’t look for historical accuracy or stirring speeches. Instead watch for quiet heroism in action, day after day, week after week.

Schreiber’s brilliant as the boyishly bitter Zus, raging against all manner of fates, whether it’s a symbolic pillar of fire by day or a pillar of cloud by night; if only they were Nazis he could simply gun down!

Craig, playing against type as Tuvia, is not quite a stammering Moses, but he’s almost as often at a loss for words, unsure of himself. Bell is a fiery Asael, caught between regard for Zus’s bravado and reverence for Tuvia’s courage. The stunning Alexa Davalos plays Tuvia’s love.

Zwick portrays the fragile group milking normalcy from chaos, making new friends or arguing with old ones, then scurrying from Nazis who’ve been smuggled into camp by informants. In interviews, Zwick has explained, “I’m not interested in supermen. I’m interested in ordinary men.” And these refugees are ordinary: carpenters, craftsmen, artisans, laborers, teachers, nurses, rabbis.

Zwick has said he’s in awe of these people “with nothing,” who marry their sweethearts and live fully, who find the staying power to build a hospital, a school, a tannery, all out in the wild, all amid adversity.

He’s in awe of people who cling to their decency and humanity when everything and everyone (the weather, the forest, the Nazis, the Russians, even their own) conspire to strip them of it. As a cornered but defiant Tuvia pants, “We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals.”

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 31, 2008
Rated: 4 stars out of 5