Reviews Too Late: Defiance

by wjw on September 2, 2009

I watched my Netflix copy of Defiance the other night, and thought it would make an interesting comparison with Inglourious Basterds. I mean, here were real Jews, killing real Nazis, as opposed to cartoon Jews killing cartoon Nazis. The Bielski partisans did stuff that really mattered, like saving 1200-odd people from the Holocaust; whereas the Basterds did stuff that wouldn’t have mattered much, even if it did happen. (Shoshanna did the heavy lifting in that movie; the Basterds were redundant.)

Defiance is heartening, if a bit heavy-handed. I doubt that any real partisan leader of the period would make idealistic speeches about freedom and resistance from atop a white horse— these guys were too busy surviving to think much about political principles— but on the other hand it was a damned stirring speech.

The film makes much of a rivalry between two of the four Bielski brothers, Tuvia and Zus, for leadership of the group. (The other two brothers mainly stand around and watch.) Tuvia wants to rescue Jewish civilians and wage war in a humane way, whereas Zus just wants to kill Germans, and eventually leaves to join a Soviet partisan band in order to do exactly that. The sibling rivalry is well drawn, as are the uneasy relations between the Bielski and Soviet partisans, and between the Bielskis and the surrounding civilian population, on whom they depend for food supplies.

The movie is about moral choice. To save a life is to become responsible for it, and Tuvia (Daniel Craig) takes that responsibility seriously. He’ll take in anyone, even the sick and elderly, and worry about feeding them later. He later almost literally becomes Moses, leading his people in an epic migration across the Sea of Reeds— and in case we miss the point, this happens on Passover.

In the final scene, when the Bielski group is trapped on a riverbank by soldiers and a tank and are about to be slaughtered, I had a horrid feeling I knew how the scene was going to be resolved, with a big blazing Hollywood finish . . . and I was right. (If Moses had just led the Israelites off to the right flank, where they could get into heavy woods and the tank couldn’t follow, he would have made a better choice than Tuvia did in the movie.)

Still, it was a pretty darn good film. Four stars. Left me feeling good.

It was when I started looking up the historical basis for the film, I found out that pretty much all the action was invented by the director/screenwriter.

Let me explain. What the Bielskis actually did during the war was heroic, brilliant, and inspiring— but from the dramatic point of view, dull. They built houses, they built schools, they scavenged food, they herded cows. (The movie didn’t mention they had a large herd of cows. Cow-punching is just too deadly dull.) The Bielskis didn’t spend a lot of time fighting Germans, they were much more interested in saving lives.

When the Germans attacked, the Bielski otriad didn’t cross the Sea of Reeds in an epic migration, they just moved deeper into the forest. (“Where’s the big climactic scene?” the director must have said to himself. “I know— I’ll crib a story from Exodus and throw in a tank!“)

So far as I can tell (and I haven’t read any of the books on the Biekskis, so I could be completely wrong) the sibling rivalry between Tuvia and Zus seems to be invented for the film. So is the detail about Zus joining the Soviet partisans. The commando raid on the German police headquarters— to get a supply of ampicillin to cure typhus in the camp— has to have been invented, because ampicillin wasn’t available till the 1960s and wouldn’t have done much for typhus anyway. A third brother, Asael, has his age changed from his mid-thirties to around twenty, apparently to give Daniel Craig more screen time as the mature leader.

So. Good movie, excellent performances, inspiring story. Not much to do with history, but that’s normal for Hollywood, isn’t it?

Comparison with Basterds? The movies are so different that I’m not really inspired to try.

There was one thing that needed further clarification. The movie made much of the fact that many of the men in camp had “forest wives,” women who lived with them. Yet in one of Daniel Craig’s inspiring speeches, he announced that it was forbidden to get pregnant. How did they resolve this contradiction? Free condom distribution? A second-base-only rule? I’d like to know how they dealt with these practicalities.

Ken Houghton September 2, 2009 at 10:53 pm

Note that the rule was waived on the realisation of the first incident.

dubjay September 3, 2009 at 12:19 am

True, but every woman in camp should have been pregnant by that point.

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