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December 2016

Defiance Defies Expectations

By Jennifer Wright

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When I received an invitation to the screening of Defiance my first thought was, “Oh, good God, Daniel Craig will be there, I am ecstatic.” My next thought was, “Oh, dear. A Holocaust movie. I don’t like the sadness of Holocaust movies.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with studying this period – I’ll happily watch History Channel documentaries about World War II – but I always feel I generally know the plot before seeing Holocaust movies. It’s pretty much always a heart wrenchingly depressing plot. A nice Jewish/gypsy/homosexual character will be introduced.  He/she will go about his/her way of life in a charming manner. We’ll form an emotional bond. Then the Nazis will take over. From that point on the hero’s life will become systematically worse and worse; most of his friends and family will die. It will be awful. In all likelihood, he will also die. Maybe he will survive, but everyone he knows will be dead, so you can’t really call that a happy ending. And then you’ll spend the rest of the day feeling sad.

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Not to spoil anything – but this movie? Not even remotely like that plot. As you may have guessed from the title, this film features a group of Jews who are extremely defiant. And it’s a true story. The movie is based on a book by Nechama Tec, which tells the story of a group of Jewish people led by Tuvia Bielski (played by Daniel Craig) and his brother Zus (Liev Schreiber). In 1941, in Nazi-occupied Belarus, the Bielski brothers take these people into the forest in hopes of escaping the ghetto. Eventually they manage to form a functional community, complete with a school, a hospital and an outhouse. By cooperating with the Soviet army, the group thrives with its number ultimately growing to 1,200. The story is fascinating, and rather unexpected.

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Admittedly, some of the imagery in the film is a touch heavy handed. Perhaps when Zus declares revenge upon the Nazis after hearing of the death of his son, he does not need to be literally drenched in blood. Meanwhile, Tuvia spends a significant portion of the movie riding boldly around on a white horse (though ultimately there’s a very good scene involving that horse.) There’s also a scene where the Bielski followers have to literally part the waters.

However, those instances dampen the movie’s appeal only slightly. The film boasts absolutely superb acting by Daniel Craig as the put-upon leader of the group, and by Liev Schreiber as his envious younger brother. However, this is not simply a movie about warlike men defying an enemy. It’s also a story about community and the responsibility we have to others. Rather than just accepting people they thought would assist in fighting the Nazis, the Bielski brothers were willing not only to take in, but actively go out of their way to find, anyone who needed sanctuary and protection. That means there was room for my favorite character, the intellectual who prior to Nazi occupation “published a small magazine. A journal, really. More like a pamphlet.” Many of the extras that comprise the Bielski followers in the movie are natives of the Belarus area; some had actually lived through the occupation.

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And yes, Daniel Craig was there. And, in a three piece suit, he was every bit as dashing as anyone could hope. Very articulately he noted that it was a bit peculiar that he often played characters who had something to avenge as “on a moral level, I don’t believe in revenge. I think it creates a world full of problems.” Liev Schreiber was also in attendance. He talked about how terrifying it was to try to portray the brother while aware that some of the Bielskis’ descendents were visiting the set. Daniel Craig agreed and noted that he dealt with the tension by dipping into the supply of vodka, in much the same way as the characters on the screen.

However, I can almost guarantee that after seeing Defiance you won’t feel the need of a similarly bracing shot of vodka. Instead, you will be fortified by the movie’s timeless messages of hope and promise in the ability of individuals

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