In 1941, Hitler began the systematic slaughter of Poland’s Jewish citizens. But brothers Tuvia and Zus Bielski refused to submit to that fate. When their village is sacked and their parents murdered by Polish police working for the Nazis, the brothers gather their two younger siblings and hide in the nearby Belorussian forest. From that leafy shelter they plot to strike back against their enemies—a story of defiance based on real events.
Tuvia tracks down and executes his parents’ killers, then realizes he has no taste for revenge. His true passion lies in somehow saving the other Jews crying out for protection. Soon he dedicates himself to the growing number of refugees who find their way to the Bielskis’ wooded hideaway.
Zus is all for saving lives. But he grows impatient with his older brother’s penchant for placing others’ needs above their own and soon heads off to join a band of heavily armed Russian partisans.
Tuvia, for his part, remains convinced that if the struggling Jews are to survive, they must endure. Fighting when they must. Hiding when they can. But always clinging to the things that give them hope. “We may be hunted like animals, ” he says. “But we will not become animals.”
His resolve—and that of all the Jewish refugees in his care—will be severely tested.
The Bielski brothers—particularly Tuvia—risk life and limb to protect as many Jewish survivors as possible. One bold gambit involves rescuing hundreds from a prison-like Jewish ghetto.
Tuvia hunts down the officer who killed his parents, shooting the man and his two sons. But he’s shaken to his core by what he’s done and later declares that he can’t get the men’s faces out of his mind. The damage that’s been done to his soul prompts him to radically alter his stance.
Tuvia insists that the forest community should try to survive without killing. “We cannot afford revenge,” he says. “Our revenge is to live.” Tuvia tells the people that they should not sink to the level of their tormentors. “Every day of freedom is like an act of faith,” he says. “And if we should die while trying to live, then at least we will die like human beings.” The Jews largely survive by taking food from nearby farms. But even in this, Tuvia suggests a guiding ethic: “We will take only from those who can afford to give. Leave those who can’t alone. We are not thieves or murderers.”
Because of harsh living conditions, Tuvia declares that there will be no pregnancies—implying that sexual contact is off limits. So when the victim of a German soldier’s rape gives birth, he’s initially furious and says that the couple will need to leave their community. But a woman with whom Tuvia has fallen in love, Lilka, informs him of the circumstances and reminds him of his pledge not to “be like animals.” She says, “What better way than to bring a life into this place of suffering and death?” The film’s conclusion informs us more babies were ultimately born than the number of community members who died in the years of the group’s forest exile.
Zus doesn’t share Tuvia’s idealistic values. Still, he has several moments of heroism. He risks his life to secure much-needed antibiotics from a German base. And though he initially rejects his Jewish roots in favor of the Russians’ more violent mode of operation, he eventually reaffirms his identity as a Jew and as Tuvia’s brother.
Many of the Jews in Tuvia’s care make references to Old Testament characters (such as Sampson and Ehud) and events (David’s battle with Goliath). There are repeated references to Moses leading God’s people out of Egypt, and it becomes clear that Tuvia himself parallels the great Israelite leader (“So now you are Moses,” Zus says). Like Moses, Tuvia is a reluctant leader who struggles with doubt.
Similarities to Moses and the Exodus account are further highlighted when Tuvia and his people are fleeing and find themselves hemmed in by a vast bog that they must summon the courage to cross. But in this case, Tuvia’s younger brother Asael says of the task, “God will not part the water; we will have to do it ourselves.”
A rabbi repeatedly talks of how the events he’s witnessed have badly shaken his faith in God. While leading a prayer, he laments the loss of life and asks God to “choose another people” and to “take back the gift of our holiness.” Amid those doubts, though, he voices his belief that God will protect the community, telling a group of children, “Trust in God, He will take care of you.” In the end, he calls Tuvia to his side and says that he believes that God sent him. “I almost lost my faith, but you were sent by God to save us. I thank Him. And I thank you.”
During a wedding, the rabbi says, “Blessed art thou our God, king of the universe.” After several of the refugees are killed, the group gathers to pray. We also hear several references to the long-awaited Messiah.
Tuvia honors a Christian who’s died for harboring Jews by marking his burial place with a makeshift cross. As they attack and kill a group of German soldiers, Zus tells Tuvia, “This is God’s work you’re doing.” A Russian leader mockingly calls Tuvia a “Hebrew warrior.”
References are made to “forest wives” and “forest husbands,” implying that marriage-like unions have formed in the community. Tuvia and Lilka eventually become such a couple. They lie naked in each other’s arms (we see bare shoulders and legs) beneath a shared coat.
A woman named Bella falls for Zus. She symbolically asks for his protection by taking his hand and placing it on her breast beneath her coat (but over her shirt). Similarly, another woman offers herself (“I’ll do anything you want”) to the younger Bielski brother, Asael, if he can help rescue her parents. (He helps without taking her up on her offer.)
A group of women are shown washing themselves while standing in a stream. (Some show cleavage, but they are dressed in slips and body-hugging undergarments.)
Defiance commences with black-and-white vintage film clips of German soldiers shooting, beating and manhandling Jewish prisoners. We then glimpse everything from vigilantes shooting a farmer in the head and throwing him on a burning truck, to armed combatants in heavy-action firefights, to overhead bombers blowing up innocents. Blood splatters onto the scenery with gruesome regularity.
In most of their engagements against the Germans, Tuvia and his people are on the defensive. Once, however, Tuvia, Zus and a few others actively ambush several Germans. Zus, especially, relishes unloading his machine gun into the unsuspecting victims, including the wife of an officer. Elsewhere, Zus casually walks up behind a group of German soldiers (who have surrendered and are on their knees) and shoots each in the head.
After killing the policeman responsible for his parents’ murder, Tuvia arguably exercises restraint by not killing the man’s wife (even though she begs him to do so). Other times, however, the film implies that such restraint is beyond his ability. Despite his commitment to avoid violence, Tuvia must confront a mutinous, rebellious community member who refuses to submit to rules, who misappropriates food and who brazenly undermines Tuvia’s authority. In a shocking confrontation, Tuvia unexpectedly shoots and kills him in front of everyone in the forest village.
Another wrenching scene involves a captured German soldier who’s pleading for mercy. He tells the gathered group that he has a wife and children—which only serves to stoke their fury further. Fists and savage kicks soon turn to beatings with butts of guns as men and women cry “Justice!” and take turns pummeling him (we don’t see the guns’ impact) as they say the names of lost family members. Tuvia watches in anguish and seeming indecision, and he ultimately decides not to halt what amounts to a community execution.
The s-word is spit out at least 15 times and the f-word five times (including some subtitled usages). There are several instances of “b–ch” and one of “a–,” as well as crude slang for the male anatomy. God’s name is misused twice.
Vodka flows like water. In fact, to be honest, I don’t remember anyone drinking any water. Just about everyone—men, women, a teen, soldiers and teachers of the Torah—tip the bottle. We even see Tuvia’s refugees concocting a makeshift vodka still. In one scene, two Russian commanders are quite drunk. German and Russian soldiers smoke cigarettes.
A German soldier urinates unknowingly on Zus, who is hiding in a bush. Polish police make crude jokes about hunting down Jews for the Nazis, and one mentions that they’re paid 500 rubles per person captured or killed.
Based on historical events, Defiance is many things: It’s the story of rough-edged, ordinary men who have the responsibility for more than a thousand people thrust upon them. It’s a tale of bravery, dogged perseverance and an unwavering desire to save others that parallels the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Finally, it’s a Holocaust story that was virtually unknown until Tuvia Bielski revealed its details shortly before his death in 1973.
For all those positives, this is also a realistic war film filled with blood-spewing gun battles, execution-style head shots, mangled innocents, revenge killings, flesh-withering starvation and obliterating explosions. Obscenities frequently cut through the dialogue.
In the course of these visceral events, even the “good guys” are forced into quandaries that raise hard questions. Should Tuvia have shot the man questioning his authority? Were there any other alternatives? Should he have allowed people to beat a defenseless German to death in the name of “justice”? The film doesn’t answer these ethical conundrums. Instead, it prompts us to ponder what we might do in a similar situation.
Which seems to be exactly what writer/director Edward Zwick intended. “In the interest of survival [the film’s heroes] may cross lines even into the emulation of their tormentor,” Zwick told beliefnet.com. “For me, that made it more heroic because it made it more believable.”
The result is a movie that broadly echoes the themes of heroism and brutality found in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. The violence in Defiance isn’t quite as graphic as the imagery in those two films. (Nor is the delivery of this remarkable true story quite as emotionally compelling as Steven Spielberg’s World War II epics.) But it is, like they are, gritty, grim … and inspiring. It’s a tale of suffering people who lash out and fail and flail, but refuse to easily relinquish their faith or their humanity.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.