Tuesday, June 2, 2009

DVD review: "Defiance"

The cinematic take on Jews during World War II has become almost a cliché of victimology. That's why "Defiance," one of 2008's best dramas, is so refreshing in its presentation of Belarus Jews fighting back against the Nazi regime.

Compare this film directed and co-written by Edward Zwick ("Glory," "Blood Diamond") with "Valkyrie," which is set in the same historical period and was released around the same time. While the Tom Cruise flick tells us virtually nothing we didn't already know, "Defiance" is full of revelations about how nearly a thousand Jews hid out in the deep forests of Eastern Europe, surviving freezing winters and near-starvation, to mount an effective insurgency against the German war machine.

Daniel Craig gives a nuanced, layered performance as the leader of the Bielski brothers, with Liev Schreiber as his hot-headed brother. Zwick, who provides a lively and informative commentary track for the DVD, muses that Craig took the part because he wanted to something "reluctant and soulful" after his career-changing turn as the new James Bond.
Other extra features are a bit on the rote side. There's a 25-minute making-of documentary, which reveals among other things that they used shredded paper to simulate all the forest snow. A featurette called "Children of the Otriad" combines interviews with the offspring of the Bielski brothers and family films and photographs. There's also a brief, wordless slideshow of photographs by Zwick of actual surviving Bielski partisans.

"Defiance" didn't do very well at the box office, and that's a shame, because this is not only a gritty war drama, but a fresh take on an aspect of the Jewish genocide that history has ignored. For those who are interested, check out "The Bielski Brothers," an excellent documentary by the History Channel that also recently came out on video, for a detailed recounting of their defiant stand.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

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