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Characters defy past stereotypes

POSTED: January 28, 2009 10:30 p.m.
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Jewish brothers Asael (Jamie Bell), left, and Tuvia bielski (Daniel Craig) in "Defiance," a story of perseverance and survival.

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The images the movies usually show us of Jews during the Holocaust are masses of huddled, emaciated, cowering victims.

"Defiance" is a different sort of Holocaust movie.

Based on the nonfiction book by Nechama Tec, "Defiance: the Bielski Partisans," "Defiance" tells the story of a Jewish resistance group lead by four brothers from what is now Belarus.

After the rest of their family and village are slaughtered by Nazis, Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brothers Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay) hide in the forests they have known since childhood. They are soon joined by others who have taken to the woods to escape the ghettos and camps.

Resources are, of course, scarce for hundreds of people hiding out in the forest, and the only way to survive is to be organized and create some semblance of a social structure. Tuvia emerges as the leader of the camp, which calls itself the Bielski Otriad (or partisan detachment).

Zus, the more temperamental of the elder brothers, joins a Russian military otriad so he can fight. The brothers represent contrasting ideas about what constitutes moral resistance to Nazi oppression.

The real people on whom these characters are based were remarkable people who triumphed over the worst imaginable adversity. The film is engaging on that universal level.

But the onscreen characters are perhaps unlike any portrayal of Jews in movie history.

At one point, a Russian military commander says to Tuvia, "Jews do not fight." Tuvia responds, "These Jews do."

That’s the essence of "Defiance." These Jewish characters get angry, seek vengeance, have libidos and take matters into their own hands rather than waiting to be led to slaughter. It is a humanizing, emboldening representation of a people too often presented as passive.

"Defiance" is a previously untold chapter of modern history, yet it echoes the Exodus, the battle at Masada, and countless other times when the Jewish people have persevered and survived. The film uses these parallels effectively.

While the Bielski Otriad fights in the resistance, they also struggle to rebuild a community and to retain their customs and faith. We see characters take on new social roles in this makeshift society. They sacrifice for each other and work together. When Asael falls in love with a young woman named Chaya (Mia Wasikowska), the community hosts a wedding as close to Jewish custom as possible.

These are the best moments in "Defiance," when we see common people struggling to retain their humanity and a sense of normality. At those times, it does what good drama should do: it finds the beauty in tragedy.

However, director Ed Zwick ("Blood Diamond," "The Last Samurai") tends toward action movies, and he pushes "Defiance" in that direction as well. The final act becomes (devolves?) into a fairly typical war movie as the whole thing builds to an inevitable climactic battle.

This has disappointed some viewers, but I thought everything leading up to the ending compensated for its weaknesses.

The entire film offers beautiful images of lush forests and a moving story of a people fighting to survive. I highly recommend it.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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