In 1941, the Nazis were marauding their way through Eastern Europe, killing Jews along the way, burying them in mass graves. Compound that atrocity with the fact that some citizens were aiding the German forces by supplying names and locations of remaining Jews who had escaped the slaughter.
In the beginning of Edward Zwick’s “Defiance,” set in Belarus, we see black and white evidence of these murders and burials, but very soon it is clear that the director of “Glory” is on to something more poignant than a rehash of what we already know. With co-writer Clayton Frohman and working from a book authored by Nechama Tech, Zwick recounts the true story or a group of brothers who basically declare they will not only rebel, but establish a community of their people.
DIRECTED BY Edward Zwick
SCREENPLAY BY Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick, based on book by Nechama Tec
STARRING Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, George MacKay, Alexa Davalos, Mia Wasikowska, Iben Hjejle, Allan Corduner and Mark Feuerstein
RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes
Not only fighters equipped with rifles and machine guns, but women, meek philosophers — anyone needing aid and willing to pitch in. It is an extraordinary story — one made more touching and poignant because it is based on fact. It is, I guarantee, a story you will not forget.
At the center of the story, which takes on biblical tones, is Daniel Craig’s Tuvia Bielski; yes, the Craig better known for his work as OO7. Working both with Tuvia and against him is Zus, the second of four Bielski brothers. He is played by the always excellent Liev Schreiber. In a lesser role is the younger and more impetuous Bielski brother, played by Jamie Bell, who earned his stripes in “Billy Elliott.”
Though it may, on the surface, conjure up comparisons to films such as “The Dirty Dozen,” “Defiance” enhances action with more thoughtful ideas, deeper and more meaningful. What a story. A man with no ambition to become a leader rounds up 1,200 Jews, leading them to safety as he and his more militant brother take up arms to defend and attack the oppressors.
It seems a miracle that Tuvia rises as a natural leader with the skills of a diplomat. Recognizing that the Russian-Communist forces face virtual extinction by the Nazis, Tuvia forges an alliance; even if some Russian troops are anti-Semitic, they recognize the power of numbers when it comes to saving their own skins.
Though the analogy is not pushed, we have before us the story of a Moses delivering his people to safety. In that respect, you can regard “Defiance” as an Old Testament story.
In addition, there’s even a cross-cutting episode Zwick obviously borrowed from the baptism scene in “The Godfather,” one emphasizing the dual, conflicting realities of war and peace. While we witness a merry wedding in the forest, Zwick inserts scenes of a battle somewhere else spearheaded by Zus.
One more thing: this movie belies the notion that all Jews allowed bad things to happen to them. It’s a touchy subject I prefer not to delve into, but it is worth thinking about. Just as interesting is the fact that after the war, Tuvia and Zus Bielski, heroes by any standard, immigrated to Brooklyn, where they ran a successful taxi business.
As for the performances, they are all first-rate. I’ve admired Craig’s work in all his movies, and though it is unfair to compare his work here with his appearance as James Bond, I regard “Defiance” as the Daniel Craig movie I admire most; I also feel that without his name, Zwick might not have received financial backing.
Thank you, Mr. Craig for lending your economic weight and turning in a solid performance as well.