Film Review: Smart Defiance is an exciting addition to Jewish action genre

The action-packed World War II drama “Defiance” is a smart, satisfying chunk of pulp nonfiction that, while totally accessible to a wide audience, will find its most enthusiastic fans among Jewish moviegoers.

Doubling as a Moses parable (with a nod to the Maccabees) and a rebuff to “Schindler’s List,” this absorbing film recounts the true-life saga of the Bielski brothers in Nazi-occupied Belorussia. Led by the fearless but reluctant Tuvia (Daniel Craig), the trio hid, defended and supported an ever-growing community of Jewish survivors in the forest.

“Defiance” is not above ladling on the clichés and contrivances of a Hollywood movie, from rat-a-tat set-piece heroics to romantic subplots. So it seems destined to find its eventual place in Jewish film history on a middle rung with films like “Exodus,” although it will hold up better than that epic.

“Defiance,” which opened in New York and Los Angeles the last week of December to qualify for Academy Awards consideration, opens around the country Friday, Jan. 16.

The opening frames establish the stakes, with familiar shots of Nazis rounding up and deporting Jews. Director Edward Zwick’s decision to segue from black-and-white documentary-style images to live-action color is ill advised and borders on trivialization, but it’s quickly forgotten as the story gallops ahead.

Finding their parents murdered, Zus (a powerful, earthy performance by Liev Schreiber), Asael (apple-cheeked Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay) flee the family farm for the nearby woods, where they meet up with the eldest, Tuvia. Tough and resilient, the brothers have two concerns — revenge and survival.

It’s reassuring, and even thrilling, to see Jews with guns in a World War II movie, but to its credit much of “Defiance” revolves around the moral consequences of violence. Self-defense is justified, of course, and killing the enemy (including Belorussian collaborators) during wartime is necessary.

But Tuvia questions how far the brothers should go to shed blood, and how much satisfaction they should take. (Somehow I don’t expect Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming “Inglourious Basterds,” about a platoon of Jewish American Nazi hunters, to have the same depth.)

Tuvia’s concern is that Jews will engage in the casual brutality of Nazis. The forest encampment does have Jews who shirk, steal and bully the weaker members of their own group, as well as those who can’t control their pent-up rage when a captured German is tossed into their midst.

As the Bielskis attract increasing numbers of stray Jews, feeding and protecting them becomes a greater priority than ambushing Nazis. So Zus, thirsting for revenge and ever-jealous of Tuvia, leaves to join a partisan remnant of the Red Army.

That storyline allows for bracing battle sequences that showcase Zus’ bravery — undercutting the stereotype of Jewish passivity — as well as the deep strains of anti-Semitism even among Nazi-hating Belorussians.

“Defiance” is a war movie first and a Holocaust film second, but it’s impossible not to read its overriding theme of Jews fighting back as a rejoinder to the cowed victims of “Schindler’s List.”

Zwick brushed aside the suggestion in an interview with j., saying he didn’t think filmmakers make movies in reaction to other movies. But it’s impossible not to read an editorial comment into the scene where a new arrival identifies himself as an accountant — Ben Kingsley’s character in Spielberg’s film, if you forgot.

“That’ll come in handy,” responds one of the elders sarcastically. It’s a throwaway line, but its meaning is clear: You won’t see anyone in “Defiance” carefully keeping a ledger while a third party saves Jewish lives. In this movie, Jews are doing it for themselves.

One of the film’s main achievements, in fact, is that it doesn’t key our emotions to the survival of the brothers’ or any single character, but to the community as a whole making it through despite setbacks and losses along the way.

As such, the parallel between Tuvia and Moses, unwilling leaders forced to accept the responsibility of leading their people to freedom, is far from the movie’s most compelling element (and scarcely needs to be hammered home by a supporting character’s third-act deathbed homily).

That said, “Defiance” is the rare movie that invites members of the tribe to take vicarious pleasure in Jewish action heroes. It doesn’t mean “Defiance” is a great film, or even for every Jew. But it’s one heckuva story.

“Defiance” opens Friday, January 16 in Bay Area theaters.


Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.