Edward Zwick’s “Defiance” (2008)

By Joseph MacDonald

A film that depicts historical accuracies and simultaneously leaves the viewer with something to hold onto emotionally is not so simple to produce. Perhaps we think of a film such as Downfall, circa 2004, that left viewers with a mixed collection of feelings and provided insight into Nazi Germany’s last stand.

In 1999, Edward Zwick began writing the script for what he would later direct and release in 2008: Defiance. Defiance is a historical film centered around surviving Nazi Germany’s Einsatzgruppen forces as they take over Eastern Europe, specifically Belarus. Daniel Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski, along with 3 other brothers: Zus, Jamie, and Asael Bielski. Their parents are slaughtered under Einsatzgruppen orders after they have been found smuggling Jews and are forced to flee into the Naliboki forest, where they take an oath to seek revenge. The Bielski family were not subject to the same fate as many Jews during this time, as they did not live in or anywhere near the ghettoes, making a hidden life more manageable.

After the Bielski brothers flee into the woods, they soon find other Jewish refugees and decide to take them under their protection. Here, they spend years building up a tight knit community filled with both hardships and joy. However, aside from the historical accuracy of this film, the main focus resides in the dynamic relationship between Tuvia and Zus (starring Liev Schreiber). After Tuvia and Zus carry out the revenge against the Schutzmannschaft chief, who was given orders by the Einsatzgruppen, they continue raiding farms and collaborators in order to bring necessary resources to the Jewish refugees in their community. However, their disagreements lay in the extent they are willing to go for freedom.

As a result of a failed raid of a German camp that left the Jewish refugees with many casualties, Tuvia and Zus begin to question the future of the camp and their place in the world. Although conflicted, Zus decides to join Soviet partisans that reside in the area after physically confronting Tuvia, while Tuvia worryingly stays behind to lead the refugees. The film stresses the importance of relationships between family members, especially in hardships. While Zus longs for freedom in a different light than Tuvia, they still have the same end goal in mind.

Zus struggles with an irrational feeling of seeking short-lived freedom. He takes these matters into his own hands after joining the Soviet partisans and exterminating as many German soldiers and affiliates as he can. The frustration, in part, is built up from isolation in the woods and his confrontation with Tuvia. During their confrontation, Zus condemns the other Jews and states they are just using Tuvia to protect them because they are weak, otherwise they wouldn’t pay him any thought. Tuvia decides to ignore this rather discourteous statement and continue his support of the Jewish refugees. There are times in the film that depict Tuvia’s internal struggle for freedom and that sometimes he wishes he could act so spontaneously as if he were Zus.

Perhaps the most important scene that allows the audience to understand the underlying message of the film is the wedding scene. We see Tuvia and the entirety of the Jewish refugees celebrating the wedding of Asael, his younger brother. While in contrast, Zus is seen slaughtering German soldiers with his band of Soviets. Freedom is what both of them seek, however, Tuvia is finding freedom in peace and the ability to celebrate a Jewish tradition without fear of retaliation. Zus’ sense of freedom is eliminating any threat to himself or other Jewish people, and he accomplishes this by taking matters into his own hands. The Soviet commander asks Zus: “You are related to Bielski?” (referring to Tuvia), and he states “I am Bielski”. Meaning that Zus sees himself as the true savior of the Jews residing in Naliboki forest, and not someone who hides waiting for freedom to knock on the door. What the brothers don’t see is the importance they both bring to their respective positions. Without Zus, the Soviets do not see the same success, and when Tuvia gets sick and the refugees are without a leader, the village goes into chaos and tyranny. When recovered from his illness, Tuvia restores this mutiny by eliminating the threat at hand, restoring peace and equality amongst the village. Tuvia is often faced with the struggle of becoming the very thing he sought to destroy in order to maintain the state of the camp and seek freedom. To what extent will Tuvia sacrifice his humanity?

The remainder of the film depicts the raid of the Jewish refugee camp by German forces, and Tuvia’s near unsuccessful attempts to avert the situation and stear off the oppressors. However, while any chance at freedom or survival seems lost and Tuvia is singled out in a heavily outnumbered situation, Zus arrives with his Soviet comrades to eliminate the threat and allow the Jewish refugees along with Tuvia to narrowly escape the situation.​​ The Bielski brothers and the rest of the refugees cross swamplands to safety.

As the objective of this film is to teach us about the struggles of Jewish refugees led by the Bielski brothers during the reign of Nazi Germany, it is also important to touch base on the emotional aspect of the holocaust, which admittedly this film fell short in doing. However, the story of Bielski brothers is in fact a true story, so whether or not the importance of this fell short or not is up for debate in the eyes of the viewer.

Despite all the criticism, Zwick expertly captured the essence of family struggles and triumphs, internal struggles, morale and humanity in doubtful times, and the need for freedom in Defiance. As well as the overall tone surrounding Jewish people during this time period. The film was generally well received by critics, although some failed to see the underlying message of giving up one’s humanity in order to save humanity. Without the bravery of the Bielski brothers and the resilience of the Jews, an account such as this would not be possible. The surviving Bielski brothers: Tuvia, Zus, and Aron moved to New York City to start a trucking company, never seeking praise or recognition despite saving hundreds and eventually thousands of lives.

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