Like the Tom Cruise vehicle Valkyrie, the wartime drama Defiance seeks to put an asterisk beside the conventional wisdom of World War II history.
The sound-bite version of WWII would say something like, "The evil Germans victimized the Jews and threatened Europe until the Americans came to the rescue," which may be true, but not complete. Valkyrie challenges the blanket "evil German" preconception with its account of conscientious Nazi officers who tried to topple Hitler's government. Meanwhile, Defiance corrects the "Jewish victim" stereotype with a rousing account of Jews in western Poland who took up arms rather than passively wait for German invaders.
In adapting Nechama Tec's book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, director/co-writer Edward Zwick tends to flatten wartime moral complexities in the name of telling a cracking good story. Less nuanced than Zwick's Glory or The Last Samurai, Defiance nevertheless makes a thrilling action drama of non-soldiers combating vicious stormtroopers and the harshness of the elements.
Initially, Defiance focuses on the Bielski brothers, who narrowly avoid a German massacre of the Jewish population of their mountain village. Compassionate Tuvia (Daniel Craig), glowering Zus (Liev Schreiber) and young Asael (Jamie Bell) flee into the forest to consider their next move. Their motivations evolve from basic survival to brute revenge to something more altruistic as Tuvia can't help but bring more Jewish fugitives back to their camp.
Craig and Schreiber offer a charged portrayal of sibling rivalry. Tuvia tries to provide sanctuary for as many fellow Jews as possible, while Zus snarls that the elderly and other non-fighters only hinder his desire to kill Germans and defend his homeland. Biblical echoes reverberate throughout Defiance, with Tuvia and Zus resembling any number of Old Testament rival brothers, while the camp's ailing rabbi points out the parallels with the Hebrews fleeing the Egyptians. Craig serves as a kind of pistol-packing Moses in a leather jacket.
With cathedral-like trees and feathery snowfalls, the forest resembles an archetypal wood worthy of a storybook. The "Bielski Partisans" set up a society with its own customs, in which intellectuals learn manual labor, women take arms for their protection, and men coin the term "forest wife" to justify their new hook-ups.
Defiance staunchly avoids subtlety. Tuvia takes to riding a white horse, and shortly thereafter the rabbi explains the abilities of a knight on a makeshift chessboard. Tuvia's horse meets a fate more in keeping with harsh necessities rather than fairy-tale endings. Zwick captures details of human deprivation, such as the ice that forms on a cauldron of soup, while also crafting thrilling scenes of raids and escapes. Like a downbeat Robin Hood story, Defiance seems to revel in its stark black-and-white shadings, in sharp contrast to the more gray, ambiguous Holocaust films that have dominated the current movie season.
Among such heavyweight dramas as The Reader, Valkyrie and Good, however, Defiance counts as the odd film out. If anything unifies most of the current Holocaust films, it's their perspective on the protagonist's complicity with evil systems. Some well-intentioned characters discover themselves to be part of the Nazi machine, such as Viggo Mortensen's compromised intellectual in Good, or the innocent German lad in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Valkyrie's doomed Germans gamble their lives on changing a monstrous government, while The Reader's main character discovers that a youthful affair represents the national guilt of his generation.
Some critics have found these films guilty of obviousness: declaring that the Nazis were bad isn't exactly going out on a limb. The better ones, however, contain more complex themes about individual responsibility. Perhaps some of the Holocaust films simply take on deeper ideas than they can manage. Defiance may be the least complex of them all, yet with its stalwart leading men, well-staged combat scenes and stark nature photography, it's the most successful as an entertainment.
Whether Holocaust movies should even be entertaining, however, is a whole other question.