Review: ‘Defiance’

A Russian partisan commander looks dismissively at the Bielski brothers, eyeing tough Zus (Liev Schreiber) and tougher Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and proclaiming, “Jews don’t fight.”

“These Jews do,” comes the prompt reply, and “Defiance,” the new film by Edward Zwick, is determined to prove that point.

Though one of the standard clichés of the Holocaust is that Europe’s Jews were exterminated without offering any resistance, historians have gradually uncovered evidence to the contrary, with the Bielskis being the prime case in point.

Along with sibling Asael (Jamie Bell), the brothers not only formed a partisan unit that took on the Germans in the heavily wooded areas of what is now Belarus, they created a community in those woods that managed to keep 1,200 Jews alive until the war ended.

Zwick, who wrote the screenplay with Clayton Frohman based on a book by Nechama Tec, has been trying to dramatize that story for at least a dozen years. As it appears on screen today, “Defiance” has some genuine strengths but also some weaker elements, and these opposing traits battle it out kind of the way the contentious Bielskis fought not only the Germans but each other.

The strongest part of “Defiance,” frankly, might be those fraternal conflicts. Craig and Schreiber are two excellent actors, and both of them connect strongly with their roles as well as their fierce rivalry.

We meet all three brothers almost at the same moment in 1941, when they discover that the invading Germans have killed their parents and likely put a price on their own heads as well.

Passionately played by Schreiber in one of his strongest film roles, Zus is the wild hothead of the family, filled with a burning desire for “blood for blood” revenge as well as smoldering class resentments against the higher class Jews who looked down on the Bielskis until they needed their help.

His brother Tuvia, well-played by Craig, though capable of cold fury when it’s called for, is much more of a stoic and closer to a natural commander than Zus. He also feels more of a responsibility than his furious sibling does to protect the helpless Jews who’ve escaped to the woods from urban ghettos.

Over the course of several projects, particularly the recent “Blood Diamond,” Zwick has become quite proficient at crisply done action sequences, and the frequent fire fights and killings in “Defiance” have a powerful effect.

Whenever “Defiance” departs from the harsher realities of its story, however, when it leaves behind the particularity of its story and deals with the generic, it risks trafficking in the kind of earnestness and sentimentality it is better off without.

On the one hand, it is appropriate and likely true to life to give each of the Bielskis a beautiful “forest wife,” the term used for the common law arrangements the war encouraged, and having fine actresses like Alexa Davalos, Mia Wasikowska and Iben Hjejle certainly helps.

On the other hand, the film has too much on-the-nose dialogue and wisecracking-through-tough-times sentiments, particularly in the dialogue between the religious Shimon Haretz (Allan Corduner) and the intellectual Isaac Malbin (Mark Feuerstein). It all feels like stuff we’ve heard before, and hearing it in the middle of a Belarus forest doesn’t improve it enough.

But when “Defiance” returns to situations that could have come from no other film, it strengthens its hand. Being true to itself, just as the Bielskis were, is what this film does best.