“1941: Germany occupies Belorussia. SS death squads and local police round up Jews. Within weeks 50,000 are murdered. 1,000,000 more await deportation and death.”
Tuvia (Craig) and Zus (Schreiber) Bielski are brothers hiding in the forest surrounding after the abovementioned invasion. They are Russian Jews, which means concentration camps or immediate execution if they are caught. They are foraging and surviving on their intimate knowledge of these surroundings they have known since they were children. Before long other Jewish refugees make their way to the Bielski camp. Unable to turn away the suffering hordes, they welcome each arrival, stretching their already limited resources to the limit. The camp eventually becomes a force of freedom fighters. They are looked down upon by the Red Army because Jews weren’t expected to fight. For several seasons the growing number of refugees makes a stand for survival and even answers a call to arms in an ultimate act of defiance. The brothers split. Zus joins the organized army while Tuvia remains to lead the camp.
The fighting in this war epic is pretty much secondary and not really an important element to the story. Give director Edward Zwick credit for avoiding the trappings of the easy way out. There’s no unnecessary bloodshed here. The battles don’t give us the usual Hollywood fireballs and explosions. The few battle scenes are much more realistic and gritty. Instead of fire, shell bombardments rip apart timber and kick up craters of dirt and rock. The story here is the human drama merely set in the theater of World War II. It’s a modern retelling of the Exodus. Tuvia is even once referred to as Moses, and that’s exactly who he is here, leading a starving and cold camp across the forest toward a hope of salvation. Zwick reminds us all too clearly of the suffering these people endured. Here we’re not given to stark pictures of skeletal survivors of the concentration camps. Here we find out that those who avoided the camps had it almost as bad. Still, there’s something about the human spirit that this film always manages to capture even during its many long moments of no activity. The movie requires patience, but patience that will be many times over rewarded if you join these people on their journey of misery. Their journey of determination. Their journey of defiance.
Schreiber is the natural born fighter of the brothers, but he’s not a leader. He struggles with his own conscience and willingness to commit to these refugees. We can witness the inner conflict, thanks in no small part to the casting choices made here. I’ve offered my share of knocks on Daniel Craig in these pages for his attempts at James Bond. Although my mind has not been changed on that subject, I do believe I’ve finally seen Craig at his best. This is the kind of part that was made for him. He manages to capture the essence of the reluctant hero. Tuvia never sets out to be a savior or even a leader. But, with Craig’s clever acting, we know instantly the point when he has been metamorphosed from a farmer’s son to a great leader.
Finally, enough can’t be said about the wonderful cinematography to be found here. The film was shot entirely on location deep in the forests of Lithuania. The frigid and wild environments give us not only the opportunity for some breathtaking views but for a sense of authenticity that echoes from everything from the performances to the score. Without taking the battle action too far, Zwick has created a truly visceral experience, one that can’t help but touch the viewer in some way or another. It’s a very bleak and somber story. There really isn’t going to be a “happy” ending, and you will experience human suffering on a massive scale. If the film has any flaw at all, it’s that there’s never any release from the bleakness of the story. I submit one would be totally inappropriate and somewhat disrespectful to the source material, the real life story of these brothers and the refugees they kept alive.
Defiance is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. It’s likely that the high level of detail here only adds to the somewhat depressing tone of the film. It is rather remarkable. Detail is incredible, particularly facial close-ups. You can see the follicles of the stubble on the men’s faces. Color is overall rather bleak and washed out. This is after all a winter environment where color would most certainly be absent. Still, if you’re looking for an island in the middle of this wasteland, it does exist. I’ve never noticed just how blue Daniel Craig’s eyes really were. If that’s not a testament to color and detail, I don’t know what else in this film you could point to. There is an appropriate level of grain, but black levels are quite deep and inky. The Lithuanian locations truly stand out in some quite breathtaking vistas and backgrounds.
The Dolby TrueHD Audio track does a terrific job as well. I am as much impressed with the amount of quiet as I am with the aggressive battle scenes that shower us with bullets and ricochets. The score never intrudes. This movie knows how and when to be still. Dialog is usually easy to catch, but understand that in the heat of battle you’re not expected to hear every word. You hear what counts. The ambient sounds and effects do everything necessary to immerse you in this very tactile experience.
Defiance – Return To The Forest: (26:05) HD: This is a better than average behind the scenes feature. We get some real information on the evolution of the story and the real people behind the characters. There’s plenty of behind the camera footage. It’s a very inclusive and informative piece with participation by all of the principals.
Children Of The Otriad: (13:42) HD: Meet the descendants of the people that survived these events. It is estimated that there are over 1000 descendants of those saved by the brothers.
Scoring Defiance: (7:00) HD: Former Elton John band member James Newton-Howard takes us into a recording session with the orchestra. He also talks about his take on the moods and themes of the music. It’s nice to see an individual musician from the orchestra looked at so closely in one of these things. There’s some wonderful violin solo work here, and we get to meet the performer.
Bielski Partisan Survivors: (1:58) SD: A photo gallery of the refugee survivors.
I imagine they’ll be a lot of people who will remark that this film was too slow or not engaging. It’s unfortunate, because studios too often cater to that rather closed-minded crowd. A lot of hard work and sweat went into making this an authentic experience and honor some unsung heroes in the war. While there is no glorious end to this kind of real life story, it is one that needs to be not only seen but experienced. Zwick provided just that opportunity. In a world of MTV music video style editing, Defiance shows us by its content and by its existence that “nothing is impossible”.