Defiance (US 2008)


Daniel Craig and Liv Schreiber as Tuvia and Zus Belieski

Daniel Craig and Liv Schreiber as Tuvia and Zus Belieski

I want to see Andrjez Wajda’s Katyn about the massacre of Polish Army officers by the Russians in 1940. Wajda is a great filmmaker and this is a personal project. But the film still hasn’t got UK distribution. I can watch a similarly personal project about the Jewish partisans who successfully fought the Germans during the occupation of Byelorussia (now Belarus) between 1941 and 1944. The difference is that this is a $50 million film available on wide release in UK multiplexes. It is, however, technically an American independent film, shot in Lithuania with cast and crew largely from Europe. So I guess it’s a global film.

I have mixed feelings about director/co-writer Edward Zwick. I first came across him as the director of Glory (1989), in many ways a ground-breaking film that introduced Denzel Washington as a star and outlined the history of African-Americans in the Union Army during the Civil War. Later, I was repelled by what I read about the representation of Arab terrorists in The Siege (1998) and I didn’t see the film. I did watch The Last Samurai (2003) and although it was overlong and a bit silly in the last third (and starred Tom Cruise), there were impressive scenes and a sense of a genuine love for Japanese history and cinema. Zwick is clearly someone who specialises in stories about individuals caught up in conflicts, often in different cultural contexts. The difference in Defiance is that the film is relevant to Zwick’s own past in that his family left Poland after the First World War and the story of the three Bielski brothers is based on real events.

The three brothers are played by Daniel Craig, Liv Schreiber and Jamie Bell. They couldn’t look less like brothers, but they can all give a good performance, helped, I think, by the decision to all speak in some kind of East European accent. They are at least consistent (even if there are criticisms that a Brit speaking Russian is not very convincing). Although most of the dialogue is in English, there are significant exchanges in Russian and Belarusian (?). Before the screening there was a trailer for Valkyrie, in some ways a similar production – a Hollywood film with British actors and crew members on location in Eastern Europe. But in this case, the actors appeared to keep their own accents. Tom Cruise and Bill Nighy together as German staff officers was hilarious.

The Bielski brothers survived the first wave of German massacres of Belarusian Jews, but lost their parents and wives/girlfriends. They fled to the forests where they built refuges and took in other Jews escaping from the ghettoes, developing a relationship with Russian partisans who were officially part of the Red Army. Eventually, they ended up in a fortified village with over a thousand inhabitants despite attempts by the German forces to flush them out.

The film is well acted, beautifully photographed by the Portuguese master Eduardo Serra and crisply directed by Zwick. The action scenes work well and there is a convincing drama of relationships between the brothers and within the group generally. Part war combat movie and part ‘home front’/resistance film, it offers an interesting generic mix. On the downside it is too long and there was a moment when I thought the narrative lost direction and I began to wonder what might happen (which is rare for me, I’m usually caught up in the narrative). There was also one rather deadly speech delivered by Daniel Craig. I’m loath to criticise speeches where characters lay out a moral/political position since I’ve spent a long time defending the same thing in Ken Loach films. This time, however, the speech just doesn’t fit into the overall approach adopted elsewhere and the narrative just seemed to stop and wait for the moment to go away. Of course, this is a Hollywood film and it is all slightly ridiculous. The young women in the forest are all beautiful, the men are great fighters and the actual group we see never gets more than 40 or 50 strong. A different film might have focused on the logistics of the operation and the realism of survival as well as explaining a bit more about where the story is set and who was fighting whom. This one doesn’t, but as a popular film it introduced audiences to an historical event that is worth remembering. The one terrible thought I had during the screening was that the film could become a propaganda weapon for the Israelis since its main thematic is that these are Jews who fought back and survived an experience that mainstream history has tended to represent in terms of passivity and meek acceptance of a terrible fate. I have no argument with the theme as such and the film was meant to have been released several months ago when it would have been less explosive. It’s a shame that it appears when the attacks on Gaza are at their height. At the end of the film we learn about what happened to the real Bielski brothers. I was wondering if they went to Palestine, but the two survivors (who were represented as pragmatic men) went to New York.

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