December, 2008, Drama


Director Edward Zwick, (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, Glory) begins an essay on the background of his latest film in yesterday’s New York Times with the statement “My grandfather Itchky was a tough Jew.” Bragging about the virility of ones ancestors isn’t new, but Zwick takes that relatively benign impulse to new and terribly disappointing heights in his latest film, adapted from the book of the same name by Nechama Tec.

It tells the true story of the brothers Bielski, (Tuvia, Zus & Asael) who rescued themselves and scores of fellow Jews during World War Two by waging what amounted to a campaign of survival against the Nazis in the dense forests of Belarus, creating a community of armed resistance that over the course of the war ultimately helped over 1200 people survive The Holocaust. It’s a remarkable story and deserves all the attention Zwick and co-screenwriter Clayton Frohman provide. What a shame to report that they’ve made a leaden, clichéd mess of it. 

Instead of delivering an incisive examination of the various dimensions of endurance - - physical, psychological and moral - - required under such conditions of extreme duress, Zwick gives audiences a rambling melodrama stuffed with trite stock characters and low-rent battle sequences accentuated with puffed-up, pretensions dialogue. The result is an astonishingly clumsy movie that trivializes its heroic subject matter by situating it inside the structure of a formulaic action movie. 

Tuvia, (David Craig) Zus, (Liev Schreiber) and Asael, (Jamie Bell) are described by Zwick in his Times piece as siblings who were “…uneducated, unsophisticated, casually violent, sexually predacious, fiercely loyal (and) at times murderous…” who nevertheless used the circumstances in which they were placed to, “…gradually, reluctantly even, discover in themselves something extraordinary.” Such a description provides an incredible opportunity for character development delineating the combination of personal and circumstantial ingredients required for profound personal transformation; instead, Zwick’s screenplay offers roles suitable for John Wayne types in a storyline that promises much yet delivers very little.  

As the Germans occupation spread eastward towards Russia in 1941, the Bielskis returned home one day to discover their parents dead and their farm destroyed. Slipping away into the surrounding forest, they first wrecked vengeance on their parents’ killers, and then found themselves cast as the unwilling leaders of a small group of straggling survivors of the ethnic extermination program introduced by the Nazi occupation. Moved by the anguish around them, Tuvia and his youngest brother decide to assume responsibility for the ragtag collection of survivors while Zus, eager to extract revenge for the loss of his wife and child, left them to join a paramilitary group of Stalinist Russians engaged in formal guerilla warfare. Tuvia’s growing collection of civilian artisans formed a symbiotic relationship with the Zus’ Russian compatriots, supplying them with food, clothing and equipment repair in exchange for the piecemeal protection the latter’s clandestine raids provided. As the Bielski group grew, it faced the challenges with which any growing community must cope; sanctions for those who break the rules, allocation of scarce medicines, regulating the organization of work and access to food, etc. In doing so, Tuvia’s was forced to exercise a crude form of quasi-political leadership ill-suited to his agrarian roots. But he and his band of half-starved followers persevered, shifting the location of their make-shift homes whenever the Germans came too close to their forest hiding places and fighting them when necessary. Their resilience persisted all the way to the Third Reich’s final collapse.

This exemplary tale should have been permeated with numerous examples of successful personal and social adaptation on the part of any number of those involved in this inspiring struggle, but by focusing on the three brothers to the near exclusion of everyone else involved, the screenplay turns this astonishing, collective accomplishment into a series of “star-turns” for its principals, especially Tuvia and Zus. While Craig and Schreiber are competent actors, they’re burdened with pretentious lines and action sequences more suitable for a B-movie than an A-list exercise in historical drama. Craig’s taciturn James Bond may yet make him a superstar, but his ability to inhabit an inarticulate peasant leaves much to be desired while the usually subtle Schreiber turns Zus into a one-dimensional walking dose of testosterone.  

Zwick leaves no cliché, visual or verbal, unexploited; Tuvia makes a speech about the need for “community” while riding a snow-white horse back and forth in front of the upturned faces of his cohort, riffing on George C. Scott’s performance in Patton. Zus blasts away with his machine gun in the manner of John Wayne as he scoffs at those who occupy themselves by taking care of the weak instead of fighting the enemy. Fall is heralded with golden leaves falling into a small stream, spring with sunbeams lighting the upturned face of a young woman taking a sponge-bath. Deep sibling emotion is repeatedly announced with exhibitions of fraternal bear-hugging and an early winter wedding is artfully decorated by a gentle snowfall’s that simultaneously timed to mask Zus’ band of guerillas as they ambush a German convoy. 

But the most grievous element of Defiance lies beneath the brutality of its action sequences and the cloying sentimentality that permeates so much of the remainder of the movie and can be found in the unintentional stereotyping of the Bielski’s Jewish wards. The script provides characters right out of central casting; a bespectacled intellectuals versed in Scripture, a humble tradesman, a delicate, sickly adolescent too traumatized to speak, along with any number of sharp-witted housewives - - even a wise-cracking, Tevye-wannabe lifted straight from Fiddler on the Roof ; yet not one is provided with authentic dialogue that might convey the depth of strength and determination these valiant individuals surely must have had in order to simply stay alive. All three brothers take ‘forest wives”, yet the foundations and impact of these relationships are neither explored for dramatic effect nor used to plumb the sources of stamina required to survive the grinding effort to get from one day to the next. Fortitude and resourcefulness must have been in extraordinary supply, but Defiance confines those virtues to the Bielski brothers with the result that their followers come off like a modern version of the biblical Exodus story- - a people wandering in the wilderness, whiney and weak, only too willing to be lead anywhere by someone who can protect them. It’s obvious Zwick intends nothing of the sort of course; he’s publicly expressed unabashed pride in the accomplishments of this group and all those Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors, but instead he’s succeeded in embellishing stereotypical notions of resignation in the face of Nazi atrocity and the myth of Jewish passivity.

          To add insult to injury, the director’s visual sense makes it nearly impossible to gain any appreciation of the physical challenges which confronted these nomadic survivors; despite the presence of veteran cinematographer Eduardo Serra, (Girl With a Pearl Earring) the film’s Lithuanian locations never convey the oppressive sense of isolation found in Transsiberian, this year’s other movie shot in that small and little-known country. The production and set designs of Dan Weil and Veronique Melery don’t convey a realistic notion of hand-top-mouth subsistence but rather the sort of crafted artificiality normally associated with back-lot studio productions in Hollywood. Those involved in this high-minded project might have possessed good-intentions, but they’ve merely paved hell with them.    

The verdict? Imagine John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold  Schwarzenegger playing brothers in a plot worthy of Shakespearian nuance that has the look and feel of an installment in the Rambo franchise and you have some idea of the grave injustices provided by the 137 minutes of Defiance. 


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