When Defiance first appeared on movie screens around the globe, it was one of the rare war-themed movies that piqued my interest. Daniel Craig, lately of James Bond fame, brought such new life to Casino Royale, I was curious to see him in a different role. Alas, the stars did not align correctly and I was unable to see Defiance at the theater. So when it was released on DVD in June, I knew I had to check it out.
Though I have a decent background in history, wars were never my strong suit. Other than what I'd read or seen on television or in other films, my knowledge of World War II and the atrocities done by the Germans to the many peoples of Eastern Europe was limited. History is clear that Adolph Hitler was indeed a monster. His will to destroy and remake Europe in an image of his own choosing brought immeasurable suffering to Europe.
Defiance tells of the Bielski brothers. Unable stand by and watch as their world was destroyed and innocents were slaughtered, the brothers managed to save more than a thousand people in the Belarussian forests during that time. Their little-known tale is a story of heroism and sacrifice.
Though not always in agreement, the two older brothers, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and Zus Bielski (Liev Shreiber), and their two younger brothers proved that the Jewish people could make a choice – die like sheep or live free and fight to survive. Those who went with the Bielskis chose to be free. But like all freedoms, it came at a cost.
Many people of the Bielski Otriad (the group the Bielskis protected) found it difficult to adjust to their new situation. Everyone had to pitch in and help out the community – as builders, menders, cooks, nurses, fighters, and so on. And if the fact that they were hunted by German patrols at all times, and simply finding ways to survive in the forest weren't enough, they also had to deal with the harsh winters.
Beyond a doubt, this is an inspirational story. How could such a group not only survive for four years against all odds, but thrive as well? Though many died either of the hardships of their living conditions or while protecting the community, more than 1200 Jews were saved from extermination. The descendants of those survivors now number over 19,000, which is the lasting legacy of the Bielskis. All the men and women of the Bielski Otriad are heroes; and, how Tuvia kept them together is truly a miracle.
If you look past the story to the movie itself, it is impossible to ignore the care and passion of the crew in making the film. The acting, costumes, makeup, and special effects added to the whole fabric of the production. Craig and Shreiber were totally believable as brothers, as were Jamie Bell and George MacKay as the younger brothers.
I have to talk about the soundtrack for a moment. James Newton Howard managed to use the strings of a full orchestra to punctuate not only the powerful emotions encountered throughout the story, but to accentuate the quiet of the forest and that eerie calm before the storm that sometimes preceded an attack. The soundtrack never detracted from the movie, but enhanced it for me like few other soundtracks in recent memory.
Beyond director Edward Zwick's commentary on the film, the DVD also included three additional great features. "Defiance: Return to the Forest" focuses on the making of the film and includes comments from the director, producers, actors, and crew.
From the special effects people who created safe, but detailed, replicas of WWII-era weapons for use during some scenes (and an actual rubberized tree for a scene where Zus bashes his head repeatedly after learning of the death of his wife and child) to the costumers' historically-accurate frocks and the makeup artists matching makeup to the color of the dirt in the area for a scene, it's obvious that everyone involved had immense respect for these lives and stories they were trying to capture. Add to that, the language differences between the extras, crew, and cast from multiple countries trying to get a historically accurate amalgam of Russian, German, Polish, and other languages and you get the portrait of the extremely talented and dedicated group of people working on the film.
In "Children of the Otriad," we learn more about the descendants of the Bielski brothers who survived the war and thrived elsewhere. Each family member interviewed: sons, daughters, and a granddaughter. were proud of what their parents and grandparents had accomplished. They were also touched by the care and work put in by the director, crew, and cast.
And finally, the "Bielski Partisan Survivors" feature included pictures of all the survivors of the Otriad. These were the actual men and women who lived through the stories (and so much more) from this dark period in history. You can see the pain and memories in some of their eyes, as well as the joy in others. These are very powerful black and white photos of people who lived to tell their stories.
As someone not usually drawn to war movies, this was a special case for me. Defiance is about the triumph of men over monsters and the unbelievable trials these people endured not only to survive but thrive for years afterwards. Defiance shows a triumph of the spirit and the preservation of hope in a movie I will be proud to have in my collection.
Be sure to pick up a copy for yourself and experience this powerful film.