The most chilling, affecting moment in this “true story” comes right at the start.
Defiance chronicles the real-life exploits of three Jewish brothers who created a viciously effective resistance movement against the Nazis in Belorussia and managed a forest community of Jews saved from the camps and ghettos.
Director Edward Zwick kicks off his film with a grainy monochrome newsreel shot of Hitler saluting, followed by a distressing montage of archive footage of Jews being rounded up, beaten and shot. Black and white then segues into colour and staged footage and the film proper begins.
But while we are always aware that the horrors of the Holocaust need constant restatement for generations for whom the Second World War is simply history, we must also be aware that after the harrowing real-life footage, what see is fictional filmmaking.
Powerful, superbly staged scenes of combat, notably a climactic attack by Jewish resistance fighters on a German tank and troops have considerable visceral impact, as befits the director of Glory and The Last Samurai.
However, Defiance strives and sometimes succeeds to be more than just another war movie. It is not, as crassly described by a Sunday tabloid, Schindler’s List meets Rambo. The rivalry between brothers Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber, giving the most commanding and truthful performance) and reluctant resistance group leader Tuvia, who’s hatred of the Nazis is fuelled by the slaughter of his family, is vividly delineated and played. Daniel Craig as Tuvia leaves 007 far behind as he turns in a strong dramatic. Jamie Bell is competent as the young Bielski sibling, caught in the crossfire of his brothers’ fierce rivalry, which compounded when Zus breaks away from Tuvia and joins a band of Communist partisan fighters.
A parallel with Schindler’s List is made overt with the Jews saved by the resistance fighters joining up with the band and fighting for survival in the forest. Unfortunately the screenplay, based on Nechama Tec’s book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, creates too many clichéd characters, among them romantic interests for the brothers, and Allan Corduner’s well played if over-familiar rabbi.
Defiance is finally a film of two parts, which nevertheless deserves to be seen. The action is undoubtedly exciting; the Jewish storyline — and the attempt to show that Jews were not just victims but fighters too — should be pre-eminent but somehow fails to be compelling. Some of the dialogue is embarrassing. Corduner’s dying words to Tuvia, “You were sent by God to save us”, is Hollywood at its worst. Fortunately, there are valuable shafts of gallows humour, notably Tuvia’s response “Try being one” to a friend’s query, “Why is it so hard being friends with a Jew?”