All along I’ve been thinking that Defiance is an insufficient name for a film about surviving the Holocaust. It’s too nondescript, too generic–the movie could be about anything, really. Why not give it a title that hints at the gravity of the film? And then I thought about the movie as I drove to work this morning, and it struck me that seeking revenge through survival is just really…defiant. Okay, so maybe it’s a decent name after all.
As the film begins, the Bielski brothers witness the slaughter of friends, family, and loved ones in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. It’s grisly and graphic, and it’s enough to make Zus (Liev Schrieber) bash his head into a tree trunk before vomiting and then crumpling to the ground sobbing. All around them Jews are being murdered or forced into “work camps” (a.k.a. death camps) and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. It’s bigger than all of them, and their knee-jerk attempts at revenge prove very little. It seems only right to take down a Nazi when the opportunity presents itself, but what does this really accomplish? If the Bielskis continue seeking vengeance, then they are no better than the enemy: they will be reduced to savages.
Instead, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) begins building upon the temporary hiding spot his family has set up in the woods. As more and more Jews stumble their way, the squatting place slowly grows into a camp, then into a full-fledged village. Tuvia serves as the unofficial leader with the support of Zus and their younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell), and life goes on in the forest in much the same way it did on the outside. Everyone pulls their weight in gathering food and handling chores, and anyone with special skills in a particular trade is compelled to use them. There are strict rules and living conditions are harsh–perhaps not much better than those inside a work camp–but everyone who has committed to life in the forest knows that there is hope as long as they are hidden. Besides, the best possible way for a Jew to stick it to a Nazi is to survive.
Despite its unassuming title, Defiance is a moving look at three brothers whose courage impacted innumerable lives. For every person who came out of that forest alive, there is a group of family and friends who did not have to bear their loss. Beyond that, there are two more generations of Jews who spawned from those survivors. In that context, the Bielskis’ act of rebellion is nothing short of heroic.
DVD extras include commentary by Edward Zwick and three featurettes on the Bielski family and the survivors from their forest village. Rather than the typical making-of fare, we’re given a glimpse of the people portrayed the movie, the generations that followed, and the real-life impact of the Bielski’s defiance. It’s somber and uplifting in equal measure.