It may have been a mistake to watch Defiance in a double feature with Valkyrie. These two WWII movies could not be more different in tone, though both are portraits in bravery above and beyond reasonable hope. Where Valkyrie is very military and fawning, sort of, Defiance is gritty, earthy, trembling, and intense. The premise, if you’re unfamiliar, is the true story of a group of Jews hiding from the Nazis in the dense Belorussian forest of Lipiczanska. The little commune that built up around the thoughtless survival instinct of three brothers Bielski (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell) grew into a full community. It is more to live than just to survive (as Wall-E also reminded us), so that we know what we survive for.
Here are a people so hounded, so surrounded by hatred and fear and death and loss, yet still able to pull together and retain civilization in the bleak Belarus winter. It’s a story about that, but it is also a story about the Bielski brothers’ relationships with their grief, with each other, with survival – and the legend that grows around their names as a result of their ad hoc protectorate.
As a WWII story, it’s inspiring, and even new. As a film, it’s tense and nerve-wracking and sobering. To witness such conditions, such resources, such fear, such stakes is always harrowing. Director Edward Zwick is no stranger to painting a rich canvas for his actors to stand out upon (Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Legends of the Fall, for example) and he does not disappoint here. The near-monochrome of the winter, their ever-present grimy and threadbare existence is portrayed with even more depth than the plot points.
Thanks to the consistent but occasionally dense Eastern European accents (a welcome dip into realism after Valkryrie’s British/American flavor), I missed a number of character names for actors whom I wish to praise. The coughing teacher and the Red Army leader were too sparingly used but gave great performances. Schrieber, Iben Hjelje, Mark Feuerstein, and Mia Wasikowska stood out for me as favorites — partially for their open, optimistic faces, and partially for making me believe they were beleaguered Belorussians fleeing Nazi persecution, despite their familiar faces.
It’s a simple, solid movie, worth seeing indeed, but I fear more like a satisfying Chinese dinner over time. See it before the world forgets about it.
MPAA Rating R-violence, language
Release date 12/31/08
Time in minutes 137
Director Edward Zwick
Studio Paramount Vantage