Movie review: “Defiance”

Defiance (2008), directed by Edward Zwick, is a war movie set in the western part of Nazi-occupied Belarus during the years from 1940 to 1944. It is (more or less accurately) based on the true story of the Bielsky brothers, as told in a book (Defiance: The Bielski Partisans) written by Nechama Tec, who was born in Poland in 1931. In 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the codename for its invasion of the Soviet Union. It is more or less at this time, that the story of “Defiance” is set.

Daniel Craig (Tuvia Bielsky, the eldest), Liev Schreiber (Zus Bielsky), Jamie Bell (Asael Bielsky), and George MacKay (Aron Bielsky, the youngest) star as four Jewish brothers from Belarus, who miraculously evade the invading forces, seeking shelter in the nearby forest. Gradually, more and more Jewish refugees join them in the forest, fleeing from the Nazis and their death camps, until the group numbers a couple of hundred members.

They try to build a more permanent camp for themselves in the forest, but are repeatedly pursued and attacked by German soldiers. At one stage, they encounter an army of Russian partisans, also living in the forest, and seek their protection. Whereas Tuvia, Asael and Aron decide to stay with the Jewish refugees in order to protect them, a rebellious Zus defies Tuvia’s older-brother authority, and decides that he will throw in his lot with the partisans instead.

One of the older Jews says to Tuvia, who emerges as the natural leader, albeit a somewhat reluctant one, of the group of refugees:

“If you save a life, you must take responsibility for it.”

In practice, such responsibility means ensuring safety of the refugees and protecting them against attack, as well as finding food and shelter and, especially in the long cold winter, warmth. So, as Tuvia declares to the group:

“We will start rebuilding the lives that we have all lost. … Everyone will work, there are no exceptions. … Our revenge is to live.”

Surviving in these harsh conditions involved many daily challenges. Food parties had to be sent out every day in order to get food from nearby villages and homesteads; sometimes such supplies were given willingly, at other times, they had to fight for it. The threat of hunger and starvation were never far away.

Also, because everyone was living in such cramped conditions, especially during winter, and because of the lack of food and warmth, sickness spread quickly through the camp; to make matters worse, there weren’t (m)any medical supplies either.

Single women, or women who had lost their partners in the war, found it imperative to seek the protection of a man, and thus offered themselves as forest wives. Everyone, including the women, had to learn how to handle weapons and how to shoot. Everyone had to offer their skills to the group, whether it was woodwork, metalwork, leatherwork, nursing, making clothes and shoes, etc.

As a result of being forced to live together so closely, and having to rely on each other for survival, the sense of community grew. The shifting and changing social dynamics between the different characters showed very clearly how the everpresent sense of danger brought out both the best and the worst in them.

So, for instance, Tuvia repeatedly tried to instil in the community the sense of a moral code: 

“We may be hunted as animals, but we will not become animals.”

The movie highlighted the bravery and courage of normal people, thrown together in conditions where it was almost impossible to survive.

It was an emotionally stirring movie, well worth watching.

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Note 1: Click here to see the Trailer.

Note 2: For a detailed synopsis of the movie, have a look at the Internet Movie Database.

Note 3: Click here to read the Wikipedia article about the Belarusian resistance during World War II.

Note 4: If you are interested, here is a more detailed description of life in the forest camps:

“Jewish Family Camps and Groups in Belarus, 1941-1944”

“The idea of creating family camps for Jews belonged to Anatoly (Tuvya) Bielsky. Together with his brothers Alexander and Sigizmund, he organized many escapes for prisoners from a number of ghettos in Western Belarus. The prisoners were directed to the Naliboky virgin forest, which spread for three thousand square kilometers on the right bank of the river Neman. Residents of the nearby Jewish shtetels were wonderful guides through the area, maintained connection with the local Belorussian population and often had their sympathy and support.

After some time the camp grew to 250 people, then to 700, and by the summer of 1944 it numbered 1230 people. Women, elderly and children who were doomed in the occupied territories made up more than 70 percent of the camp.[2] Men who were able to fight carried arms and guarded the camp. They also took part in combat missions with the nearby camps termed “the rail track war”. Others in the camp provided as much help as they could with everyday things to the nearby groups of partisans.

Taking into account the need for supplying the livelihood of these camps as well as presence of qualified specialists, in Bielsky’s camp people organized various shops. No less than 200 shoemakers, tailors, cabinetmakers, leather-dressers, gunsmiths and other artisans worked in those shops. They opened their own hospital with full health services and a dental office as well as an elementary school for children.

Special brigades formed to supply the rest of the camp with food – potatoes, grain, meat, vegetables, mushrooms and berries. They built a mill, a bakery, a soap-boiler and a laundry. In addition, they sowed eight hectares of wheat and barley.

Other partisan units, based on the Bielsky family camp, formed, troops named after Kalinin and Ordzhonikidze as part of the Kirov’s brigade. Jewish partisans successfully took part in the combat missions. In the years 1942 to 1944, they derailed six echelons of the enemy, bombed 19 bridges, burned down a lumber factory and eight national German estates, blew up 800 meters of railroad tracks, and killed 261 police officers and Nazis. They also prevented deportation of more than one thousand residents to the forced labor camps in Germany.” (see website)

Note 5: See here for a brief interview by Chuck the Movieguy with Daniel Craig about shooting the movie.

Daniel talked about the practicalities of being on location in the forest. He said that it was a very tough environment to work in, because it was cold, wet, damp, and they had to keep chasing the natural light, whenever the sun managed to break through the clouds. But, he added, they were fortunate in that they could return to their warm hotels and comfortable trailers afterwards; they also had many of the luxuries that those hundreds of displaced and persecuted refugees who had been forced to live in the forests and to survive the freezing Russian winters of 1941-1943, certainly did not have.

They also weren’t able to base themselves in Belarus itself, but instead shot the movie in the forests just on the other side of the border, in Lithuania, between 150 and 200 km from the sites, where the original events had taken place. It is also interesting that some of the locals who were used as extras, were actually descendants from those who had been rescued by the Bielsky brothers.

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