Memo to Hollywood directors: moviegoers are tired of mediocre Holocaust films. “Defiance” is the latest portrayal of Nazi oppression in a holiday season filled with similar films of varying quality (“The Reader,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”). As heavy-handed as its title, the film suffers from cringe-inducing dialogue, uninspired cinematography and a plodding pace. The tragedy in “Defiance” is not the plight of its characters, but rather that director Edward Zwick managed to make an incredible true story so tedious.
“Defiance” is a chronicle of Jewish revolt against the Nazis, following the generic plot lines that are basic to any rebellion narrative. Jewish brothers Tuvia and Zus Bielski, played by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, return to their Polish farm one day to find their parents murdered by the local police, who were acting under Nazi orders. Along with their younger brother Asael, they escape into the Belarussian forest, where they gradually attract a following of other escaped Jews. Tuvia takes the reins as leader, but Zus feels stifled by his older brother’s strategy of nonviolence and leaves the camp to join a brigade of Russian Communists. Winter arrives, and both resistance groups must endure mutiny, starvation, illness and the occasional attack by German troops. Tuvia develops an interest in the beautiful Lilka Ticktin, who barely speaks a word until the last half hour of the movie. Eventually, after discovery by a formidable German force, Zus must decide where his alliances lie when the Russians plan to retreat without warning Tuvia of the danger.
It’s not the fault of the Bielski brothers that their inspiring heroism does not translate to an innovative narrative. Even with the basic story structure, Zwick could have redeemed his film with the help of well-crafted dialogue and cinematography. Sadly, “Defiance” lacks both of these. Contrived lines such as, “I miss Papa; I can’t believe he’s dead” fill the two hours and 17 minutes. At one point, Tuvia delivers a Braveheart-style pep talk to his followers, but the language he uses is awkwardly grandiose and unnatural, especially for a man of his social class.
“Defiance” offers a few visually interesting shots, one of which allows the audience to see a mob of angry Jews from the perspective of a captured German on the forest floor. Apart from this thought-provoking moment, Zwick bores us with endless sequences showing stationary conversations and hikes through the forest. Somehow, he manages to transform this majestic natural setting into endless tracts of identical tree trunks. In the final scene, Tuvia looks around as if seeing the forest for the first time and comments, “The forest, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I, for one, have never been more relieved to return to civilization.