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Review: Defiance (2008) R 137min

January 18th, 2009 by Maxim · 1 Comment · 10,775 Views


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This true-story WWII drama is directed by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, Glory) and stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schriber, Jamie Bell and Alexa Davalos. It is based on the book by Nechama Tec called “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans”.

The plot: In the autumn of 1941 when Hitler’s armies invaded Soviet Union in Blitzkrieg push toward Moscow, three Jewish brothers from eastern Poland escape to Belorussian woods. They try to save whom they could by building an entire community in the woods. They joined forces with other Soviet partisans and Red Army soldiers to protect them and use guerrilla tactics to attack or harass Germans and disrupt their supplies and communications. They were able to save as many as 1200 people through the nearly 5 years of war, and as the result some 40,000 people are alive today.

Before I begin, I find that Westerners are not familiar with the word “partisans”, so I have to explain it (director knew it too and the word is explained in the movie). Partisans are basically guerrilla fighters – usually civilians who hide and live in the woods and attack the enemy using guerrilla tactics. They were often operating on their own, without supervision of or subordination with the regular army chain of command. There was cooperation and coordination between them, but basically the partisan units tend to form on the occupied territory where regular troops have retreated are were wiped out.

First of all, I must say that I was going into the movie with low expectations. Daniel Craig was one of the selling points; the other was that I heard Daniel Craig mention on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show that the movie is set in Belorussia. So finally Hollywood came up with a movie about the role of Soviet Union in the war. A few years ago there was a movie called “Enemy at the gates about Vasily Zaitsev – Red Army’s famous sniper who killed hundreds of Germans during the battle for Stalingrad – the turning point in the War. The rest of the movie were in the category of “Hollywood crap” – John Wayne and Rambo kill everybody and win the war. Well, “Saving Private Ryan” was the first real American movie that I liked – it was a breakthrough and departure from the usual cliches.

Secondly, the subject of the movie is very personal to me. One in nine Soviet people had been killed in the war. My grandmother with her sister were on the occupied territory of Ukraine when they were put on the train and sent to the labour camp. It was Belorussian partisans like the one played here by Daniel Craig that captured the train and saved everybody.

Thirdly, I like movies based on real events. This is a true story.

Nearly every family in USSR has a war veteran in it. I’m pretty old now, but I am still to meet a person from ex-Soviet Union who is alive today and who did not have a direct relative (father/mother/grandparent) who was a veteran of the war. My grandfather was actually from the area where the movie is set, only unlike the heroes of the movie who hid in the woods on the Soviet side, he ended up on the Polish side. He later enlisted in Polish army and became a fighter pilot and ended up going through the war all the way to Berlin. Ironically, just like in the movie, in 1941 Wojsko Polskie (Polish army) was too proud to put itself in shame by drafting a Jew – but later his passport was changed to reflect his new Nationality – Polish – now (1943) he could become the fighter-pilot.

So anyway, the movie. Very personal subject, movie’s story and location that I can deeply relate to.

The story begins in 1941 where archival footage of Hitler and Reich’s armies marching East. The subtitles inform us about killing of Jews in Belorussia. Then it nicely transitions into color film and the heroes of the movie come to life. We are introduced to three brothers (one of the has a rifle) who hide in the woods and dream of revenge for killing of their families by Nazis and Nazi collaborators. They soon get their revenge, and in poorly-planned by lucky attack they manage to get more weapons. In the woods they stumble upon some other surviving Jewish families and have no choice but to protect them. More and more people join them, and now they are faced with a problem of having not only to protect them, but to feed them. The earth was scorched (not enough burning in the movie. Belorussia got the worst of Nazi occupation of the whole Eastern Europe nowhere else as many people have been killed), and they had to ask farmers to help. Nazis knew about it, and they punished people pretty severely for helping partisans – in Belorussia and Ukraine if anyone in the village was caught helping partisans the Germans would often burn entire village population alive. So our heroes often had to just take food from the farmers – but they promised they would never take too much and not rob the same places over and over. Of course, it did not make them any friends – some farmers would rat them out to police or SS.

The life of partisans in the woods and the condition of population on occupied territory was depicted truthfully, as far as I know from my grandparents’ stories. I am actually surprised how well the characters were developed and explained in the movie and how, thanks to great story-telling, so many things were fit into just 2 hours and 17 minutes of the movie.

Daniel Craig’s character, the leader of Jewish partisans, is a very complex person. There’s a lot of darkness in him – he had done some horrible, or at least controversial/questionable things, but he is a hero nevertheless. Anything can happen in the time of war. But the real hero would sacrifice himself to same others, but at the same time he is responsible for many lives and as a commander and leader he sometimes has to make the decision to sacrifice few people to save many more. There are multiple conflicts in the movie – they all seemed true to history and true to human nature. The separation of strong and weak, the competition between brothers, the antisemitism in the Russian camp of partisans, the fear, the fight for survival, demoralization, treason, greed, jealousy – so many things are depicted in the movie to form a full and believable story.

The woods really were beautiful. There are some gorgeous shots that brought a lot of fond memories back. Though in winter and spring surviving in the woods would be one of the toughest challenges any regular person could face, in summer and fall there’s a lot of food in the woods – berries and mushrooms are abundant in those places. Why did they have to eat frozen rotten potatoes all the time – that was a little questionable for me, but they made a point – feeding a community of 1200 people living in the forest surrounded by Nazis was not easy.

I have a feeling that director of the movie or screenplay writers must have seen at least a dozen Soviet war movies because the storytelling, style and cinematography is very similar. Which will probably make this movie popular in the Eastern Europe. The movie, by the way, was shot in Lithuania (ironically, an ally of the Nazis in WWII).

An impressive scene where partisans lynch a German soldier. I’ve seen in other movies and heard from my grandparents that German POWs had been guarded by soldiers – not to prevent them from escaping, but for protection from civilians – they hated Germans so much they would have torn those POWs apart with their bare hands and teeth. But the scene also shows how much those people hated Germans – it was horrible thing to do and a lot of people in the movie and in the audience looked away, but it was unavoidable and necessary.

There is a scene where Daniel Craig shoots his fellow partisan for insubordination. Back then it was called an execution “under laws of war”. How else do you keep discipline when people are so demoralized? One of the rules at the camp was “no pregnancies” – seems like the most basic human right was taken away, but it was necessery to ensure survival of the whole community.

Great action scenes – they look chaotic, especially the first attacks by the brothers when they had been improvising and planning it for the first time. They actually had some experience before – they smuggled some stuff across the border before the war.

Often a movie about Russia or USSR is filled with cliches (most famous is non-stop drinking of vodka and tea, profuse swearing and crude technology that requires constant hitting by a hammer to work) and actors who can’t speak Russian playing Russians – take any James Bond or Rambo movie for example – the accents are so bad even I can’t make up what they are saying, but when I do it’s mostly nonsence like “I destrrroy you”. But in this case it looks like the actors actually took time to learn to say lots and lots of phrases in Russian – still with accent but in character. Remember they for the sake of the movie they still speak in English most of the time but roll their “R”s. But it’s still transitions from Russian to English very smoothly and naturally so the audience is not alerted or distracted or put-off. Language is a tough thing to deal with when almost entire cast is English-speaking. But the way it was done in the movie is actually quite reasonable and even makes sense – some characters are Belorussian, some Polish Jews, some are Russians – so in the movie they all have to talk different languages or have different accents at least. So kudos to Daniel Craig and Lev Shriber and whoever tought them for making so much effort to look and sound authentic. It really seems that the entire cast really understood well the life, the time and the people they were playing.

Throughout the movie the depiction of living conditions in the camp and explained and depicted realistically - the lice, the fleas, the spread of typhoid and other diseases, inability to get washed for months, living in zemlyankas (a dwelling dug in the ground and covered with foliage or pine-tree branches for roofing), lack of food and medicaments, frost bites in winter. All that – in constant fear of being discovered by the German patrols or betrayed by somebody in population.

The good: Great cast. Daniel Craig, Liev Schriber and Jamie Bell are so good together, and each ones performance was just superb. Fantastic acting and storytelling – I was barely holding tears off  – even from the very beginning of the movie. Every time I saw a wife separated from a husband or a child taken away from the mother or when lovers say good byes or when people are mourning the loss of a loved one… It’s a very emotional movie. Not without humor, by the way. Beautiful cinematography and film editing. Nice musical score. Great action scenes. Often a weak point of the movie are the inspirational speeches that characters say, but not in this movie – the characters say those speeches when there is proper motivation and buildup preceding them. Did I say the story was great?

The bad:

  • Some factual errors. Penicillin was not known to exist in 1941 is Belorussia. It was first tried on human subjects in 1942 in England and mass-production did not begin until 1943. Ampicillin was not developed until 1960s.
  • One thing that always angers me about Western understanding of WWII – Holocaust was a horrible thing but the war was not just about mass-murder of Jews. In Poland and Belorussia 1 in 4 people were killed. In Ukraine and Russia – 1 in 6. Nazis were not just exterminating Jews, they were also exterminating communists, Gypsies, Serbs, gays, disabled, mentally ill and everybody else who was considered sub-human degenerate races. 99% of Slavs were supposed to be exterminated. Soviet union lost 27 million, but Westerners often forget that on the other side of the Earth the war was also going on – China for example lost over 20 million people. But in this movie it’s forgivable because it focuses on this particular group of people surviving in the woods for 3 years and it wasn’t the purpose of the movie to be a documentary or a story of the entire war.
  • Makeup could have been better.
  • Minor continuity problems, like turret of the Tiger tank was pointing wrong direction when one sequence transitions into another in the final scene. Did Asael Bielski really spend two days with two girls hiding in the cellar?
  • Most violence is not gory – dead bodies are in soft focus or out of focus or off-screen, not much blood, no ripped body parts as is now a tradition in making a modern war movie. But we still can feel that horrible stuff was going on on screen and outside of camera’s view.

Memorable quotes:

Panchenko: Jews don’t fight!
Tuvia: These ones do!

Farmer: Why is it so hard to be friends with you, Jews?
Tuvia: Try being one.

A new arrival at the camp: I’m an accountant
Zus: Well, that’s gonna be useful in the woods!

- Why should we leave with you? At least n the getto we have the roof over our heads. If they send us into labor camps, that’s still better then the certain death from hunger in the woods. Winter is coming!
- Those are death camps!
- How do you know? Have you seen them?

The summary: This is an unexpectedly great war movie basedon true story. Very realistic, truthful and accurate. Very emotional too. Great story and storytelling. Interesting well-developed characters. Nice action. Beautifully shot. Expected to see yet another cliche, but it turned out the be great. Highly recommended.

Similar movies: Destiny of a man, They fought for their motherland, Ivan’s Childhood – Criterion Collection, The Dawns Here Are Quiet

The cast: Tuvia Bielski - Daniel Craig | Zus Bielski - Liev Schreiber | Asael Bielski - Jamie Bell | Aaron Bielski – George MacKay | Lilka Ticktin – Alexa Davalos | Shamon Haretz – Allan Corduner | Isaac Malbin – Mark Feuerstein | Ben Zion Gulkowitz – Tomas Arana | Tamara Skidelsky – Jodhi May | Riva Reich – Kate Fahy | Bella – Iben Hjejle | Viktor Panchenko – Ravil Isyanov | Konstanty ‘Koscik’ Kozlowski – Jacek Koman | Gramov – Rolandas Boravskis

The crew: Director – Edward Zwick | Writers – Edward Zwick & Clayton Frohman | Producers – Alex Boden, Pieter Jan Brugge, Alisa Katz, Andrew Litvin, Troy Putney, Roland Tec, Gary Tuck, Edward Zwick | Original Music – James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight, Angels Fall) | Cinematography – Eduardo Serra (Blood Diamond, Beyond The Sea, Girl with the Pearl Earring) | Film Editing – Steven Rosenblum (The Dark Knight, Angels Fall, The Last Samurai, The Four Feathers etc.)

p.s. Eugene, they do say your favorite word here in the movie.

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Rated 5/5 on Jan 18 2009
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Tags: Drama · Epics/Historical · Movies · USA · War

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 watch movies online // Jan 31, 2009 at 11:18 am

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    Good to read another review of this one. It seems to be getting very mixed reviews so far.
    After this review I think I’ll have to give it a shot very soon.
    The only thing that seems to be lacking is the realism of some of the other great ww2 movies but I guess it’s hard to focus the movie in two directions.

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