Thursday, January 22, 2009

Defiance: Fighting back

Defiance (2008) • View trailer for Defiance
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for war violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.22.09
Buy DVD: Defiance • Buy Blu-Ray: Defiance [Blu-ray]

Daniel Craig's steely gaze, given more intensity by his impossibly blue eyes, often snatches the focus from the grim events depicted in Defiance.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) obviously recognizes the power of Craig's noteworthy feature; the camera certainly cuts to the man's eyes often enough. Maybe too often: It's one of a few "movie star hiccups" that occasionally pulls us out of the otherwise fascinating story being told in this WWII drama.
Although believing that their forest encampment is sufficiently concealed, Nazi
planes spot them anyway, forcing Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig, center) to help
his many Jewish followers flee from a rain of bombs. Unfortunately, the
bombers are but one aspect of a campaign to flush all these people out into the
open, where infantry can cut them down...

2008 was a rich year for Nazi and Holocaust dramas, particularly because most delved into events and psychological readings never before brought to the big screen. As I mentioned when reviewing director Stefan Ruzowitsky's The Counterfeiter last spring, I remain fascinated by the number of compelling "new" stories — not really new at all, of course; merely unheralded until now — that continue to emerge from that most horrible time in German/European history.

Defiance is no different. Zwick and co-scripter Clay Frohman, working from events recounted in Nechama Tec's nonfiction book of the same title, eschew the usual cliché of Jews as complacent victims waiting in ghettos and death camps, to focus instead on a group of resourceful Eastern European civilians who fought back: courageously, cleverly and for the duration of the war.

It's the saga of largely unsung heroes Tuvia (Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber) Bielski, who grew up with younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell) on a family farm in Stankevich, in what now is Belarus but in the 1940s — by which time all three were adults — was part of the Soviet empire. Tuvia and Zus, both imposing and charismatic, were known as troublemakers with an aversion to authority.

They therefore were targeted for quick execution when the Nazis invaded in June 1941. But while the German SS and collaborating Stankevich police killed the Bielskis' parents and other family members — including Tuvia's wife and their infant daughter — all three brothers escaped to the local woods, a vast, thickly overgrown area they had known since childhood.

Determined at first to form a partisan group to fight the Nazi occupation, Tuvia and Zus instead wound up gathering any and all fleeing Jews into their ever-expanding encampment. With Tuvia as leader, the group embraced the commitment to save as many Jews as possible: men, women, children, elders ... everybody.

And here's the amazing part: Until the publication of Frohman's book, nobody knew much of anything about the Bielskis or the astonishing degree to which their ambitious plan succeeded.

But that comes much later. Zwick confines his film to roughly the single year from spring 1941 to spring 1942, and the narrative amplifies the obvious suspense — generated by the setting itself, and the ever-present Nazi menace — with a deep ideological and fraternal conflict between Tuvia and Zus.

The former, although willing to do what's necessary if no other options are available, nonetheless tries to adhere to the higher ideals of human behavior and Jewish tradition. Zus, in stark contrast, is an implacable killing machine who sees no reason to take any chances; if "liberating" some dairy products from a local milkman, for example, Zus deems it prudent to kill the man, rather than hope he'll be sympathetic and not report them to the Nazis.

Tuvia, having tasted vengeance early on, and deemed it soul-wrenching, prefers — wishes, hopes — for better choices.

Tuvia therefore agonizes through most of this story, and Craig certainly portrays the man's despair over his desire not to descend to the level of the Nazi invaders. (Zus wastes no effort on such philosophical niceties.) And yet, as a natural leader, Tuvia also recognizes the necessity of maintaining order by tossing his ever-expanding flock an occasional bone.

Consider, then, the look of sick revulsion on Craig's face, as Tuvia reluctantly allows some of his people to beat a young captured German soldier to death ... equal parts horror that these otherwise gentle Jews should wish to descend to such brutal barbarism, and that Tuvia should find it necessary to avoid intervening.

It's a powerful scene, made even more so by Craig's persuasive acting. He and Schreiber share numerous other compelling moments, as Tuvia and Zus clash in the manner of brothers vexed by fraternal differences that are magnified by these remorseless circumstances.

As long as Zwick concentrates on such matters, Defiance holds our attention as the compelling historical document it deserves to be.

Unfortunately, the film's tone isn't consistent. Most distractingly, the need to pair all three Bielski brothers with female companions results in some precious — and even "cute" — interludes that feel wholly out of place. At one point, I thought we had wandered into a revival of Fiddler on the Roof; later, Tuvia and his "forest wife" get cleaned up to a silly degree (in this setting), for the movie's token lovemaking scene.

Then, too, the enclave's token elder philosopher — Allan Corduner, as the schoolteacher Shimon — begins to feel a bit too much like Yoda, spouting fortune-cookie observations that sound like comedy relief we really don't need.

Too much time is spent with such Hollywood-style nonsense, and not enough with crucial details ... such as precisely how the Jewish enclave does find enough food to survive the harsh winter of 1942.

One can assume that foraging parties and raids accomplish this task, and yet the film repeatedly emphasizes the degree to which this is made increasingly difficult, both by the pervasive Nazis and a nearby Russian partisan group — which the frustrated Zus eventually joins, along with several other disenchanted men — that orders Tuvia to stop begging supplies from "their" farmers.

On the other hand, Zwick and Frohman's script sensitively handles the entire notion of anti-Semitism, and the deeply ironic degree to which is has become ingrained, even under these harrowing circumstances.

"Jews don't fight," intones the iron-fisted leader of the Russian partisan group, quite dismissively.

"These Jews do," Tuvia replies, with equal contempt.

Later, despite having proven his value as a soldier, time and again, Zus is confronted by the stark reality that his new Russian compatriots still regard him — and all Jews — as less than human. Small wonder, then, when forced to discuss what Jews are good at, that Zus bitterly insists, "Jews are good at dying."

Craig has the flashy "good guy" role, but Schreiber's Zus is far more complicated. He obviously loves his older brother but fears the consequences of optimistic idealism; the conflict plays out as a symphony of anguish on Schreiber's face.

Bell, still remembered from Billy Elliot and, more recently, Flags of Our Fathers, plays Asael as the comparative innocent caught between his two much more dynamic older brothers: the reluctant and frequent peacemaker who tries to make both find common ground. But these forces tugging at Asael go deeper: They make the young man more reckless, out of his desire to prove himself in his brothers' eyes.

Bell is well cast for the role, and we spent much of the film worrying about Asael's safety. (Small wonder, since Zwick and Frohman put him in such repeated peril!)

Some of the more explosive battle scenes — particularly when Nazi planes, having found the encampment, rain bombs into the forest — are a bit sloppy; we get the distinct sense that certain key protagonists are blown up, and yet they reappear moments later. (Apparently all those other nameless characters just looked like our heroes, we're left to believe.)

Fortunately, such issues aren't too irritating; both the core drama and Craig's performance carry this film. This is the second time — after Munich — that Craig has thrown himself, body and soul, into a storyline that revolves around the moral ambiguity of Jews seeking vengeance. If the actor has been at all worried about the degree to which he might be "typed" by his reign as the current James Bond, he can rest easy; he remains an actor of considerable skill.

And, without question, the deserving focus of our attention in Defiance.

No comments:

Post a Comment