defiance cover

One wonders why it took so long for the story of the Bielski brothers, sensible and steady Tuvia (Daniel Craig), hot-headed Zus (Liev Schreiber) and peace-maker Asael (Jamie Bell) and their partisan band, who hid out in the forests of Belarus during World War II. Eventually, the brothers gathered to them a self-sufficient band of refugees from the nearby Jewish ghetto of Stankiewicze – that part of Poland taken over by the Soviets at the beginning of the war. Eventually, the Nazis and their ‘final solution’ came to the Bielski’s home; the older brothers were already living in the woods, and in the very first scenes of the movie, they return to find their parents dead, and their youngest brothers hiding in a makeshift bunker under a haystack.

The movie outlines the growth of the Bielski partisans and the clash between the two brothers. Only relatively small portions of the band were active fighters; the focus as Tuvia sees it, is to protect their people, their fellow Jews; their surviving friends and neighbors, and those whom he has managed to convince him to leave the dubious shelter of the ghetto and follow him into the woods. Tuvia resorts to banditry and violence when pressed, to feed and supply those whom he has taken responsibility for; he will also take swift revenge on the family of the Polish collaborator responsible for killing his parents. Zus just wants to kill Nazis: he will go and fight with a Soviet-led partisan band, rather than shepherd a miserable band of town-bred intellectuals through a brutal winter in the woods.

An excellent touch in this movie is the realistic way that life in the forest is depicted: not just as a sort of long-term experience of camping out in the summer – when the woods are beautiful, misty green – but also the having to endure brutal near-Siberian winters. It is made very clear that existence then is one long misery, of dirt, semi-starvation and cold. The move itself was filmed not fifty miles away from where it all took place, in a similar forested setting. Refreshingly and realistically also, the characters generally appear unkempt, ragged and dirty, and the males indifferently shaven for much of the movie. And the occasional explosions during the moments of combat are realistically understated; no spectacular fiery clouds.

The one aspect lacking in this account is some kind of explanation of why Tuvia and his brothers were adept as leaders, and so well-disposed to hiding out in the woods in the first place. It might have been a bit more artful in the story-telling to have set up a bit more of the Bielski’s back-story, to have shown a bit more of what they were doing before the war, of their milieu as small farmers, on the edge of the woods, and gone into a little more of their personal losses. Tuvia and Zus are depicted as being in their thirties, after all; they would have had meaningful adult lives, careers, wives and children. Briefly revealing those elements, instead of just a bare mention in brief dialog would have added an extra dimension to the story. It appears that Tuvia had served in the Polish Army, and that as the war ramped up, he and Zus may have been active as smugglers – which would account for them being in the woods in the first place, and disinclined to cooperate with law and order in the second.

Extras include a commentary by director Edward Zwick, a feature about the making of the movie – and the most interesting, a short documentary on the descendants of the protagonists. Amazingly, Tuvia and Zus immigrated to the United States, after the war, and spent the remainder of their lives working in trucking and small businesses. They appear to have never formally recognized during their lifetimes for having sheltered over a thousand of their fellow Jews. All in all, an interesting movie venture in telling a relatively unknown story. Defiance will be available June 2, through Amazon and other retail outlets.

Sgt. Mom is a free-lance writer and member of the Independent Authors Guild who lives in San Antonio and contributes to the on-line literary magazine, The Deepening. Her current book project, “The Adelsverein Trilogy” is also available at Amazon.com and selected local outlets. More about her books is at her website www.celiahayes.com.

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