Last night, I watched Defiance with Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber via Netflix. Before getting into the movie, let me note this: If Netflix wants people to wean themselves off of getting movies by mail, they have to do a better job of delivering a non-pixilated film
That said, I don't know why Defiance got so many iffy reviews. It is an excellent, engrossing film, full of action, suspense, tension, humor, and even some romance.
The story concerns a group of Jews in what was then Poland and is now part of Belarus. After the Nazis exterminate most of their co-religionists in the area, a family of brothers makes for the woods. There then forms around them a growing cluster of other survivors and refugees. Soon, they build what amounts to a town, albeit a town that survives on "liberating" stores from local farms and evading the ever encroaching Nazi patrols. The film is based on a true story, and [SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!] I'm happy to report it features a happy ending.
If I had to nitpick, it is embued with a somewhat socialist-friendly tinge. For instance, the only philosopher quoted is by Isaac, a former socialist magazine editor. The only philosopher he quotes is Descartes, who started the beginning of the end of historic Western civilization as he was arguably the first herald of the so-called Enlightenment.
Then there was the quasi-Marxist sentiment thrown out here and there. For instance, to a group of new arrivals, Isaac and the village rabbi tell people to give them their valuables. "This was my grandmother's," says a woman, who obviously doesn't want to give up the valued heirloom. "And now it belongs to the Otria [i.e., brigade]," says Isaac. "Everyone sacrifices for the sake of the collective. We can trade everything for food or weapons."
To the new recruits, the camp commander Tuvia tells them, "Pregnancies are forbidden. We cannot acommodate an infant's needs here." Naturally, a baby comes along. The mother tells Tuvia's love interest that the baby growing inside of her is "the only thing that's keeping me going." After the child comes forth from the womb, Tuvia tells his lady that rules are rules, and that the next day, mother and infant must leave (mother was raped by a German soldier, so it would be just her and the baby). Tuvia's paramour tells him, "You told us to hold onto our humanity, not to become like animals. And what better way than to bring a life into this world of suffering and death? It is our only hope." That was nice.
So was the subtle message to those who favor the outlawing of abortion except in cases of rape and incest. This scene shows a baby does not choose how it is conceived, and, furthermore, the circumstances of its conception neither negate its dignity and right to life nor mean that it cannot provide joy and hope. Witness the mother's comments above.
At one point, the Jewish castaways capture a German soldier and bring him into camp. While Tuvia pours over the man's satchel, which contains intelligence that the Nazis will attack their camp two days hence (on Passover, no less), the settlers surround the soldier. They spit on and occasionally punch or kick him, barely holding back their fury. The man begs for mercy because "I have a wife and two small children," to which one camp resident shouts back in anger, "So did I!" This scene is especially poignant, I thought. Isaac, an atheist after all, begs Tuvia to step in and do something. But Tuvia stands by and lets the crowd do what they will. Soon this or that person, with tight camera shots on all, hits or stabs or clubs the soldier, giving voice to the anguish within them conceived by the Nazis killing their loved ones and ruining their lives. Isaac again appeals to Tuvia, and by Tuvia literally turning his back on the question, the crows rage is unleashed. At this point the camera pulls back and shows this maelstrom of vented revenge. It's frightening, almost demonic to behold.
The inhumanity of the secular humanist ideology that animated communism and animates so much else today gets center stage at one point. Tuvia's brother Zus has been fighting a guerilla war against the Nazis with the Soviet-back partisans. When he learns of the impending German attack, he goes to his commander. The commander, too, has learned of it, and he informs Zus they are falling back. Zus and he then engage in a dialogue about what really is their duty, to help those who will be slaughtered if their force don't help or to retreat and live to fight another day, damn what happens to anyone else.
"We all must make sacrifices," the Soviet officer tells Zus. "I find your Hebrew sentimentality rather touching," he continues, giving just a moment's hope that he will at least release Zus to go help those in the camp. "However, I must tell you," he continues, his lip forming into a sneer and his tone turning quite menacing, leaving no question as to his seriousness and the maliciousness behind it, "that it is quite counter-revolutionary." The person didn't matter to the Soviets. Only the collective did, the State. All had to be subordinated to the state, even love of family. If they die, so be it. As long as the Motherland emerges better off for it. It's a chilling scene.
There are many such chilling, thought-provoking scenes. There are the "forest wives," how Tuvia handles a potential mutiny, what does it mean to keep one's humanity in a time of inhumanity, and the moral tradeoffs one encounters in such moments the way one encounters gnats on a hot summer morning (i.e., the choices to be made are unrelenting).
All said, the film is inspiring and thought provoking, and well worth the 2:15 hours you will spend watching it.