Saturday, January 17, 2009

"Defiance": an exercise in WWII forest survivalism (a bit more red than green)


I’d seen previews for “Defiance,” the new WWII drama from Paramount Vantage and director/writer Edward Zwick for some time. Let me prefix the review by noting that the previews had often been shown in 2.35:1 aspect but the long film (139 min) is actually shot 1.85:1.

The concept sounds a bit claustrophobic. Three brothers Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bielski (played by Daniel Craig, Live Schrieber, and Jamie Bell), escape from a Nazi overrun of their village into Belorussia and build a forest camp, attracking many other survivors. The very opening, in black and white reels, is gruesome as the stormtroopers come and yank people out of their homes for the concentration camps. But pretty soon they have built up a substantial community. Tuvia says they will defy the Nazis by living, and remain free as Jews. But, as the movie progresses, Tuvia must become a dictator himself, demanding that women fight alongside men and not get pregnant, and that everyone work.. Later there are squabbles as to whether fighters get more of the limited supply of food, and Tuvia again must start to behave like a little Stalin. They must maintain “diplomatic” relations with the Russians, and convince them that they are good Bolsheviks. Indeed, they seem to be adopting communism, pretty much along the same lines as would the Soviets later. They have to.

Some of the “intellectual” survivors (like the former “accountants”) in the camps are put to the test, and that doesn’t just mean playing chess (which happens). One man has to “give up his books.” That’s what I would have faced if I had been unlucky enough to have lived in Poland in 1939. I would have found that the world had changed, externally, in such a way that it had absolutely no use for me unless I “changed” too. If I didn’t want to, I perish, a coward perhaps, not to appear even in the hereafter, a real disappearance, because my existence as an individual; has no relevance. That is the horrible fact about war, or some other huge external traumas or mega-disasters (which I cover on another blog). Complacency is one of the worst of vices, not being aware that one’s life, however productive at the moment, depends on others in unseen ways and can be at the mercy of forces beyond one’s control. Yet, everyone in the camps adapts. One thing is different from a usual “dictatorship of the proletariat” – they are free to leave – and go back to the Village, where there may be coal and heat and maybe more food sometimes – but also Nazis.

The youngest brother, played by Jamie Bell, seems like the steadiest character in the movie, always steady in battle, always keeping his head and emotions above the panic of the moment.

Most of the film, we are immersed in this forest world that seems almost life a paradise, even given all the want and hardship and hunger, especially in the winter scenes. But the outside world constant threatens with its goblins and monsters. The movie has a twilight-zone like quality.

There is a scene where a woman has an encounter with a forest wolf, who tries to commit “armed robbery” for food, and it is quite harrowing.

The film was shot on location in Lithuania.

The film played to a large auditorium in an AMC theater in Arlington VA (marketed as "AMC Select") and was about 2/3 full on the 7:30 show on Saturday night, Jan. 17.

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