At the Movies with Kevin: Defiance Disappoints

“Defiance” tells the harrowing story of the Bielski brothers, who saved approximately 1200 runaway Jews in Belarus by hiding in the forest for the duration of World War II, in a conventional and monotonous way. This is a tale about courage, selflessness, and sacrifice in the midst of unspeakable evil that deserves to be told, but is so extraordinary that it might be difficult to cohesively frame into film without resorting to a conventional narrative structure that is less than enthralling. “Defiance” lacks the passion that should be expected from a story of such heroism and concludes in an expedient and unsatisfactory fashion.

The biggest flaw in “Defiance” is that the film begins too late in the war and ends before it should. This is precisely the type of narrative that requires a running time of three hours plus in order to tell the entire scope of the story by deeply involving the audience in the characters’ fates and comprehending the motivations for their actions. The director, Edward Zwick, leaves little time for reflection, sparingly allowing the actors or atmosphere to resonate in our minds.

The story structure basically consists of fighting followed by romances or drama inside the camp and then back again. I wish Zwick had spent more time examining the character’s faces, allowing them to contemplate their previous lives or the fear that was bound to simmer in their minds, instead of focusing on the childish bickering that often goes on between an intellectual and Rabbi that becomes quickly tiresome. The most poignant moment in the film might be when Craig comes to the understanding that all of his hard work might not matter because of the latest obstacle that seems unyielding, looking off into the horizon as if he is seeking an answer from the almighty.

Zwick does an admirable job of making the individuals in the camp into complicated characters whose hate has the ability to consume them and overtake their actions. At one point, the Bielski partisans capture a German soldier and treat him in a way that would have seemed unthinkable before the horror they had both seen and experienced.

There is a touching moment late in the film where a fallen member of the group explains to Tuvia the significant impact he had on his faith. The problem is that this is the first time this emotion is expressed, making the scene not as moving as it might have been. There are questions about the characters that would have been answered with closer and more intricate observations.

What made these men so courageous as to completely defy the most evil army in the world’s history? Did it derive from events in their childhood? The film explains that they were in trouble when they were younger and often forced to hide in the woods, giving them an advantage over the impending army, but that does not give much insight into the complexity of their personalities.

Tuvia is the undisputed leader of the group, but what makes him such a charismatic and engaging superior presence? Tuvia forces the group to take all runaways, even including the old, sick, and infirmed, undoubtedly putting the entire mission in harms way, but what made him have such humanity? In contrast, Zus only wants to save the strong and is motivated purely by revenge, but the film never enlightens the audience as to why he and Tuvia have such stark differences in their approach to fighting the Nazis.

“Defiance” does not have the power of a film like “Schindler’s List” because we do not see the evil so close that the graphic detail of the horror becomes difficult to watch. Instead, the Nazis lurk in the forest without personalities to counteract those of the Bielski partisans. If evil is not seen, how do we know it is there? Although we know the types of atrocities the Nazis were responsible for, film is there to remind us of the horrific images that accompanied their appalling actions, which makes a greater emotional impact than any unknown evil.

Maybe I am being too hard on it. “Defiance” does contain many first-rate performances, especially from Liev Schreiber, as Zus, and Daniel Craig, who commands the screen in many scenes as Tuvia by forcibly speaking as if attention must be paid or the consequences could be fatal. This is the actor the Bond franchise believed they were getting when they picked him to be the debonair spy. “Defiance” has breathtaking cinematography with colors that permeate with life, which might be another one of its problems. The Holocaust was about death, unprovoked and unwarranted, of one people to another. Somehow, I believe Monet is not the person to express such a dark and disheartening point in our world’s history.

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