It’s Oscar season, which usually means its time for another movie about the Holocaust era. The film “Defiance” may technically fall into this category, but it ends up feeling far more like an adventure/action movie than “Schindler’s List.”
Directed by Edward Zwick, “Defiance” tells the true story of the Bielski brothers (Liev Schreiber, Daniel Craig and Jamie Bell) who escape the fate of their Jewish brethren throughout Belarussia by hiding out in the woods and forming a community of 1,200 refugees. They dwell surreally in the forest, building camps, defending themselves and trying to retain some semblance of their humanity.
It is empowering to see a portrayal of strong, forceful Jews who refuse to be passively taken to their deaths, and Craig and Schreiber are just the actors to do it. They inspire a group of downtrodden people to stand their ground and fight - even if they have to learn to fire a gun first (and be taught by James Bond, no less). When Schreiber volunteers to fight the Germans alongside the Russian army, the commander tells him: “But Jews do not fight.” His response: “These Jews do.”
But the brothers encounter their own moral struggles as they decide where to draw the line between strength and weakness, fighting back and cold-blooded revenge. These struggles are the heart of this movie, but they never seem to advance or develop beyond the simplistic, and after a while, the quandary grows somewhat tiresome.
Even with the story’s inherent drama, there is still a sense of detachment in the film. Perhaps it comes from the sometimes-hokey dialogue, overdone soundtrack or peripheral characters that border on stereotypes (Mark Feuerstein as “the intellectual” and Allan Corduner as the Rabbi are the most glaring examples) and a death scene that is so melodramatic it borders on a telenovela.
One of the most fascinating parts of the story is only mentioned in a few on-screen words just before the credits; how the real-life Bielski brothers went on to have productive lives in the United States, rarely mentioning their adventure. This fact makes them all the more heroic and would have been a wonderful element to incorporate into the film.
Either way, “Defiance” does its job by impressing the audience with an astounding story of heroism and courage, but it misses the opportunity to make a truly memorable emotional impact.