Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Edward Zwick|
|Produced by||Edward Zwick
Pieter Jan Brugge
|Written by||Edward Zwick
|Music by||James Newton Howard|
|Editing by||Steven Rosenblum|
|Distributed by||Paramount Vantage|
|Release date(s)||United States:
December 31, 2008 (limited)
January 16, 2009 (full)
|Running time||137 minutes|
Defiance is a 2008 war film written, produced, and directed by Edward Zwick, set during the occupation of Belarus by Nazi Germany. The film is an account of the Bielski partisans, a group led by four Jewish brothers who saved and recruited Jews in the Kresy region of Poland during the Second World War. The film stars Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski, Liev Schreiber as Zus Bielski, Jamie Bell as Asael Bielski, and George MacKay as Aron Bielski.
Production began in early September 2007 and had a limited release in the United States on December 31, 2008. It went into general release worldwide on January 16, 2009 and was released on home media on June 2, 2009. The film was an adaptation of Nechama Tec's book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans.
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, who are Jews: 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 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 collaborating police. 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, attempted betrayal 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 Sofiya survive 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, which has apparently deserted the Soviet retreat to rejoin the group. As the survivors escape into the forest, the film ends as on-screen text states that they lived in the forest for another two years, building a hospital and a school, 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 joined the Soviet Army and was soon killed in action, and that Tuvia and Zus survived the war and emigrated to America to form a successful trucking firm in New York City. The epilogue also states that the Bielskis never sought recognition for what they did, and that the descendants of the people they saved now number in the tens of thousands.
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.
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 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.
A review by Armchair General magazine cited the book Women in the Holocaust by Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman, to argue that in reality the Bielskis were less egalitarian than the film suggests, and that "the fighters had the first pick among women for sexual partners."
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". Zwick also revealed that Adolf Hitler sent two German divisions into the forest to search for the partisans and were unable to locate them.
On 5 March 2009 The Guardian reported: "A film starring Daniel Craig about a Jewish underground resistance movement that took on the Nazis has prompted a storm of protest in Poland. [...] Defiance has been booed at cinemas across the country and banned from others because of a local perception that it is a rewriting of history and anti-Polish." On 11 March 2009, the Polish Embassy in London disputed the report, stating: "This embassy has been in touch with Defiance's only distributor in Poland, Monolith Plus, and we have been told that this film has not experienced any form of booing, let alone been banned by any cinemas."
Most reviewers from Belarus criticized the movie for a complete absence of Belarusian language and for the Soviet partisans singing a Belarusian folk song while they would more likely be singing Russian songs. "The word Belarusian is spoken out only three times in the movie", the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii wrote. Veterans of the Soviet partisan resistance in Belarus criticized the movie for inaccuracies. Some reviews, as in Poland, criticized the movie for ignoring the Bielski partisans' crimes against the local population. Still, all Belarusian reviewers praised Defiance as one of the few Hollywood movies depicting an episode of Belarusian history.
Defiance made $128,000 during its two weeks of limited release in New York City and Los Angeles, California. It made $10 million during its first weekend of full release in the United States, and by the end of its box-office run, the film made approximately $50 million worldwide.
Defiance was released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 2, 2009. The bonus features included a commentary by director Edward Zwick, and four features about the making of the film.