There must be a bunch of critics who just sit around sharpening their knives waiting for historical movies to come out so they can savage them for not being comprehensive or presenting their preferred angle on history.
Case in point, Defiance. This is the story of Belorussian Jews who flee into the forest because the Nazis have invaded with the intent of rounding them up and hauling them off to the “work” camps. Through hard-work, tough choices and persistence, they manage to survive for a time even despite the brutal winter.
That’s really the story in a nutshell, and it’s based on the real-life story of the Bielski brothers.
But check it, New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott says the message of the movie is “if only more of the Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe had been as tough as the Bielskis, more would have survived”.
Well, first of all, that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s hard to imagine a more insulated story about the Jews in WWII. These aren’t German Jews or Italian Jews, but Polish/Belarus Jews, and their experience of the war is particularly idiosyncratic.
On the other hand, isn’t it true, to the extent that it can be applied? If more Jews had been as tough–and had a wilderness to escape to–wouldn’t more of them have survived? Do we have to take the stance that, as harsh as the Nazi regime was, all the Jews did everything they could?
That sort of simplistic analysis is rebutted by this film, in fact, as one of the big problems they have in freeing the Jews from the ghetto is that the Jews still believe that the Germans are sending them to “work camps”. In fact, that they won’t be killed because they’re useful as slave labor.
Anyway. Sometimes I see a review and just think, “What the hell movie was he watching?”
So. About this film, which The Boy pronounces “excellent”.
This is a manly film. Daniel Craig and Liv Schreiber are the brothers who end up taking on more and more “civilians” and trying to figure out how to feed them in the woods. (I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t hunting animals.) Craig wants to take on the civilians and concentrate on surviving while Schreiber wants to join up with the Red Army partisans.
This leads to some tension between our manly men.
Director Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samuri) is remarkably non-judgmental in his direction. There are things in this movie that might be called murder, but there’s no attempt to make you feel one way or the other about them.
There’s a scene, for example, when the Jews get a hold of a nazi soldier and want to kill him. And, really, it’s hard to fault them for it. I mean, if we’re supposed to be appalled at the savagery of human nature, or something, it doesn’t come off. There’s a revenge scene and a command-struggle scene as well, and there’s even a debate about what to do with a baby being born.
But while the emotions are there, they’re not forefront. At the forefront is survival, and the question of what makes us decent human beings versus what we have to do to survive.
Note that while this is a manly-man film, the women are enlisted into the fighting and are eager to defend themselves and provide for their families. In fact, the manly-men have to adjust to them doing so. But you can see the echos of Israel in these scenes of women fighting.
So, we have strong characters, good pacing, some historical authenticity, rejection of victimhood (at least to the extent possible under the circumstances), dramatic tension…and Nazis! But no Oscar noms here. (We’ll leave that to the naked girl Nazis.)
Flaws? Well, the accents seem to come and go (particularly Daniel Craig’s). The last scene struck me as somewhat preposterous, if dramatically necessary for a satisfying ending. And I thought some of the scene juxtapositions (marriage vs. battle) were needlessly affected. But overall a solid flick, and not at all ooky.
Which may be why the Academy and critics didn’t like it.