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Defiance is a 2008 war film directed by Edward Zwick, set in the western part of the Nazi occupied Belarusian SSR.

The film is an adaptation of Nechama Tec's Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, which tells how the region was in Poland to 1939 and was seized by the Soviet Union in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet pact. Tec writes that Jews in the area of Nowogrodek , or Navahrudak, welcomed the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. Tec also writes that when Germany launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Bielskis operated as Soviet partisans in Poland, saving and recruiting Jews into their units loyal to Stalin.

Defiance stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, and George MacKay as four Jewish brothers from Belarus who escaped the Nazi persecution and fought back to rescue fellow Jews. Production began in early September 2007. The film had a limited release in the United States on December 31, 2008, and went into general release worldwide on January 16, 2009. It was released on home media on June 2, 2009.
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Theatrical release poster


Plot

The film opens with on-screen text stating: "A true story". It is August 1941 and Nazi forces are sweeping through Eastern Europe, targeting Jewish people. Among the survivors not killed or restricted to ghettoes are the Bielski brothers: Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Aron (George MacKay). Their parents are dead, slain by the local police under orders from the occupying Germans. The brothers flee to the forest, vowing to avenge for their parents.

They encounter other Jewish escapees hiding in the forest and the brothers take them under their protection and leadership. Over the next year, they shelter a growing number of refugees, raiding local farms for food and supplies, moving their camp whenever they are discovered by the Germans. Tuvia kills the local police chief responsible for his parents' deaths and the brothers stage raids on the Germans and their collaborators; however, Jewish casualties cause Tuvia to reconsider this approach because of the resulting risk to the hiding Jews. A long-time sibling rivalry between the two eldest brothers, Tuvia and Zus, fuels a disagreement between them about their future: as winter approaches, Zus elects to leave his brothers and the camp and join a local company of Soviet partisans, while his older brother Tuvia remains with the camp as their leader. An arrangement is made between the two groups in which the Soviet partisans agree to protect the Jewish camp in exchange for supplies.

After a winter of sickness, starvation, and constant hiding, the camp learns that the Germans are about to attack them in force. The Soviets refuse to help them and they evacuate the camp as German dive-bombers strike. A delaying force stays behind, led by Asael, to slow down the German ground troops. The defense does not last long, with only Asael and another surviving to rejoin the rest of the group, who, at the edge of the forest, are confronted with a seemingly impassable marsh. They cross the marsh, but are immediately attacked by German infantry supported by a Panzer III. Just as all seems lost, the Germans are assaulted from the rear by a partisan force led by Zus, who has grown disenchanted with the Soviets' anti-Semitism. As the survivors escape into the forest, the film ends as on-screen text states that they survived another two years, ultimately growing to a total of 1,200 Jews. Original photographs of the real-life characters are shown, including Tuvia Bielski in his Polish Army uniform, and tells their ultimate fates: that Asael was killed in action shortly afterwards, but Tuvia and Zus survived the war and emigrated to America, and that the descendants of the people they saved now number in the tens of thousands.


Cast

  • Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski
  • Liev Schreiber as Zus Bielski
  • Jamie Bell as Asael Bielski
  • George MacKay as Aron Bielski
  • Alexa Davalos as Lilka Ticktin, a Polish refugee and Tuvia's love interest
  • Mia Wasikowska as Chaya Dziencielsky, Asael's love interest
  • Allan Corduner as Shimon Haretz, the brothers' old school-teacher
  • Iben Hjejle as Bella, Zus's love interest
  • Tomas Arana as Ben Zion Gulkowitz, a resistance leader
  • Mark Feuerstein as Isaac Malbin
  • Janina Matiekonyte as Sofiya
  • Kristina Skokova as Aneela
  • Jodhi May as Tamara Skidelski
  • Kate Fahy as Riva Reich
  • Ravil Isyanov as Victor Panchenko, Russian partisan commander, roughly based on the real *life partisan figure, Nikolai Mayakov.

Production

Zwick began writing a script for Defiance in 1999 after he acquired film rights to Tec's book. Zwick developed the project under his production company, The Bedford Falls Company, and the project was financed by the London-based company Grosvenor Park with a budget of $50 million.

In May 2007, actor Daniel Craig was cast in the lead role. Paramount Vantage acquired the rights to distribute Defiance in the United States and Canada. The following August, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, and Tomas Arana were cast. Production began in early September 2007 so Craig could complete filming Defiance before moving on to reprising his role as James Bond in Quantum of Solace.

Defiance was filmed in three months in Lithuania, just across the border from Belarus. Co-producer Pieter Jan Brugge felt the shooting locations, between 150 and 200 kilometers from the actual sites, lent authenticity; some local extras were descended from families that had been rescued by the group.


Critical reception

Defiance received mixed to positive reviews from film critics. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 56% of critics gave the film a positive review based upon a sample of 132, with an average score of 5.8/10. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film has received an average score of 58 based on 34 reviews.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott called the film "stiff, musclebound." He said that Zwick "wields his camera with a heavy hand, punctuating nearly every scene with emphatic nods, smiles or grimaces as the occasion requires. His pen is, if anything, blunter still, with dialogue that crashes down on the big themes like a blacksmith’s hammer." Scott also said the film unfairly implied that "if only more of the Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe had been as tough as the Bielskis, more would have survived". The review states further that "in setting out to overturn historical stereotypes of Jewish passivity, ...(the film) ends up affirming them."

New Yorker film critic David Denby praised the film, saying that "it makes instant emotional demands, and those who respond to it, as I did, are likely to go all the way and even come out of it feeling slightly stunned." Denby praised the performances in the film, which he described as "a kind of realistic fairy tale set in a forest newly enchanted by the sanctified work of staying alive."

The Times and The Guardian reported some Poles fear "Hollywood has airbrushed out some unpleasant episodes from the story", such as the Bielski partisans' affiliation with those Soviet partisans directed by the NKVD, who committed atrocities against Poles in eastern Poland, including the region where Bielski’s unit operated. Gazeta Wyborcza reported six months before the film's release that "News about a movie glorifying [the Bielskis] have caused an uproar among Polish historians publishing in the nationalist press", who referred to the the Bielskis as "Jewish-communist bandits". Other historians have been characterized as being "more cautious", describing the group's banditry as understandable when survival is at stake.

The newspaper commented after the film's release that it "departed from the truth on several occasions", including depicting pre-war Nowogrodek as a Belarusian town where "no one speaks Polish", "there are only good Soviet partisans and bad Germans" and "Polish partisans are missing from the film altogether". Professor Krzysztof Jasiewicz, in an article published in the leading Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, criticized the film for vastly simplifying the historical reality in which it is set and failing to adequately place the events it describes within the complex historical situation during World War II in Eastern Poland.

To the contrary, most reviewers from Belarus stressed that not a single local person is speaking Belarusian in the movie and that Soviet partisans are singing a Belarusian folk song while they would rather be singing Russian songs. "The word Belarusian is spoken out only three times in the movie", the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii wrote. Actual veterans of the Soviet partisan resistance in Belarus criticized the movie for inaccuracies. Some comments, like in Poland, criticized the movie for ignoring Bielski partisans' crimes against local population. Still, all Belarusian comments praised Defiance as one of the few Hollywood movies depicting an episode of Belarusian history.

Zwick responded to the criticism by saying that Defiance is not a simple fight between good and evil. He told the Times in a statement: "The Bielskis weren’t saints. They were flawed heroes, which is what makes them so real and so fascinating. They faced any number of difficult moral dilemmas that the movie seeks to dramatise: Does one have to become a monster to fight monsters? Does one have to sacrifice his humanity to save humanity?" Nechama Tec, on whose book the movie is based, stated in an interview with Rzeczpospolita that she was initially shocked by the film, especially by the intense battle scenes, which included combat with a German tank. These battles never occurred in reality: the partisans tried to avoid combat and were focused on survival. She explained this divergence as an adaptation concession producer Edward Zwick made to make the film more thrilling and necessary to obtaining the necessary funding, such being the realities of Hollywood. Nevertheless, after seeing the film a number of times, Tec said that she is liking it "more and more".

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