Defiance
Starring: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and Mark Feuerstein. Directed by Edward Zwick. 2 hr. 28 min. Rated R for violence and language.

It’s appropriate that Edward Zwick has made a film about the Bielski brothers — the Jewish partisans who stood up and fought against the Nazis during World War II —  because Zwick is something of a partisan filmmaker, dividing audiences and critics with movies like Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai. Some people think his stories are entertaining, inspirational, even educational, while others often consider them heavy-handed, simplistic and overblown.

There’s no doubt that the true story of the Bielski brothers, who sheltered a community of 1,200 Jews through to the end of the war, is an amazing one. After their parents are killed, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) disappear into the forests near their home, surfacing occasionally to off some Nazis and collect their weapons. Soon, other Jewish refugees come to them, desperate for food, shelter and protection. Tuvia is forced into the role of the reluctant leader, while hot-headed lad’s man Zus joins the Russian resistance, and mild-mannered Asael is caught between his two brothers.

What’s refreshing about Defiance is that it goes against the standard Hollywood portrayal of Jews as victims, offering up rough-and-tumble brawlers. Mark Feurstein, who plays Isaac Malbin, an intellectual who takes shelter in the woods with the Bielskis, agrees.

“How the hell do you think we survived for the last 3,000 years?” he says. “It’s not because we’re wallflowers — we’re a tough people. But we’re more stereotypically known for being tough in business.”

That reversal of the Jewish stereotype is the most interesting facet of Defiance — how the skills Jews are generally best known for, don’t come in handy when they’re faced with extermination. “It’s fascinating,” Feurstein says. “My character, he was a philosopher who was respected in daily city life, but he’s thrust into the forest, where they need you to know how to fix a shoe, or they need you to know how to fix a rifle, they need you to know how to do laundry or cook eggs or make something out of nothing. I’m of no value. Guys like Daniel Craig’s character, Tuvia, who knew their way around the forest and around a rifle, they had value.”

Problem is, character development has never been one of Zwick’s strong suits — it often feels as though his characters merely represent a concept in the story, rather than actually being part of it. While the depiction of the forest community is interesting, as different social norms evolve and men and women take “forest husbands” and “forest wives” to get them through the long cold nights, the characters themselves are thinly written, and only the pensive Craig — who, along with his role in Munich, has become the go-to guy to play Aryan-looking tough Jews — manages to rise above the material, even when he’s placed upon a white horse to deliver the same sort of inspirational speeches Matthew Broderick gave in Glory and Tom Cruise offered up in The Last Samurai.

There’s no shortage of Holocaust films this awards season, and Defiance is the one that stands out as portraying the Jews in a different light. But even though the story is rousing, especially considering how many generations have thrived following those survivors, it’s hard to accept Defiance’s happy ending, because it’s difficult to see any happy ending to the Holocaust, especially one that feels glossy and is overlaid with emotionally laden music.

That’s the great problem with Defiance and Zwick’s other films: There’s never a shred of subtlety — the camera and the music tell viewers how to feel at every turn. But to be honest, that’s often what makes his films so popular. Lots of people love that sort of experience at the movies, and that’s just fine. If you dug The Last Samurai, you’ll probably dig Defiance, too. I prefer some subtlety and nuance in my films, a quality that, let’s face it, probably wouldn’t have given me a great deal of value when it came to surviving in the forest.  

anderswright@sdcitybeat.com