The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is well known. Only just told is the true story of the Bielski brothers, Jewish partisans in Belarus who took to the forests after avenging the murder of their parents by the Nazis. This is the Hollywood version, of course, but it’s a lot less genteel than Schindler’s List. Opening with grainy black and white archive footage of Nazi atrocities, this is brutal and violent from the off and Zwick keeps up the pace all the way. Craig and Schreiber excel as the two older Bielski brothers Tuvia and Zus, who take up arms and offer shelter to the Jewish refugees who join them.
Tuvia executes the Belarussian police officer who has liquidated their village of its Jewish community, and his sons. All four brothers, who for various reasons managed to survive the raid, hide in the forest and vow to fight back. Tensions already exist between Tuvia and Zus and these worsen when Tuvia allows other fleeing Jews to join them. Zus is bent on revenge killings and eventually, after a punch-up with Tuvia, he joins the Russian partisans elsewhere in the forest so he can fight the Nazis. Tuvia and younger brother Asael manage an increasingly large camp of refugees, their days spent organising food-finding missions and collecting weapons. Life in the forest is dangerous, as they are forced to shoot German soldiers and move camp. However, Tuvia and his brothers also embark on a daring mission to liberate Jews from the nearest ghetto, saving many lives in the process. Hunger and typhus rampage through their makeshift hideaway. Zus risks his life attacking a police station to get vital antibiotics while on a partisan mission to destroy a transmitter. Somehow, the Bielski groups survives the harsh winter only to discover as spring arrives that the Nazis have surrounded the forest. German planes bomb the camp and the Jews shoot back before fleeing again, only to be faced with Nazi tanks as they reach safety. There’s one final huge battle as Zus and the partisans emerge from the trees to kill the Germans and save the Jews.
I found Defiance pretty harrowing viewing, despite the wry humour that surfaces regularly (there are some very memorable dry quips scattered throughout). Zwick never flinches from showing the harshness of World War Two, particularly from the Jewish viewpoint. Thus the violence is graphic and we are not spared the sight of mass graves and other atrocities. There’s plenty of action and derring-do, as one would expect in a true story of unsung Jewish heroes, although Craig is a little too clean-shaven for the most part and his Yiddish accent is somewhat wobbly (at times he slips into his posh Bond voice). It’s a little difficult in the earliest scenes to figure out who’s who and what’s happening but the acting is terrific and Zwick keeps you guessing all the way through as to who will survive each shoot-out. It’s edge of the seat stuff, but you’ll shed plenty of tears too. Not one for a cosy night in with your partner, a takeaway and a bottle of wine, but definitely a film everyone should see. It’s on a par with Schindler’s List for telling a story that needs to be heard, especially for destroying the myth that European Jewry mostly went passively to their death.
EXTRAS None at all