Defiance (2008)




Director:     Edward Zwick. 

Starring:     Daniel Craig (Tuvia Bielski),  Liev Schreiber (Zus Bielski),  Jamie Bell (Asael Bielski),  Alexa Davalos (Lilka Ticktin),  George MacKay (Aron Bielski),  Allan Corduner (Shamon Haretz),  Mark Feuerstein (Isaac Malbin),  Tomas Arana (Ben Zion Gulkowitz),  Jodhi May (Tamara Skidelsky),  Kate Fahy (Riva Reich),  Iddo Goldberg (Yitzchak Shulman),  Iben Hjejle (Bella),  Martin Hancock (Peretz Shorshaty),  Ravil Isyanov (Viktor Panchenko),  Jacek Koman (Konstanty 'Koscik' Kozlowski).

true story of three brothers taking on the task of defending a multitude of 1,000 Polish Jews from the German occupation force


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

1941.  Germany occupies the future Belarus.  SS death squads and local police round up Jews.  Within weeks 50,000 are murdered.  One million more await deportation and death.

This is a true story. 

Zus and Asael Bielski watch from their hiding place as men are marched away from a small village.  They go home and find their mother and father dead.  They check under the floorboards of their house and take the young Aron from his hiding place.  They leave the farm and walk into the woods. 

Lipiczanska Forest.  August 1941.  Tuvia Bielski approaches his brothers sleeping in the woods.  He wakes them saying if he were a German they would be dead.  They move deeper into the forest. Tuvia asks Zus where are his wife and child?  They are in Horodyszcze hiding in a cellar.  He will bring them, he says, when it is safe.  And Tuvia's wife?  She is in Novogrudok. She wouldn't leave. 

Aron wanders off.  He sees lots of people in the forest.  He also finds a huge mass grave with uncovered dead bodies filling it. 

Tuvia and Zus wonder if Bernicki, the head policeman, was responsible for the death of their parents.  Tuvia says there's no proof that it was Bernicki.  They discuss their need of weaponry.  They remember that a farmer named Koscik has a pistol.  Suddenly a group of fleeing Jewish refugees arrive with a very sick child.  The new group and the brothers now join each other.  Tuvia says he will go ask Koscik for food and the pistol. 

Tuvia talks with Koscik.  He gets the pistol, but there are only four bullets in it.  His visit is interrupted by Bernicki and his men.  Tuvia climbs up into the attic of the barn.  There he is surprised to find more Jewish refugees.  Tuvia listens as Bernicki tells Koscik that they get 500 rubles for every Jew they find and bring in.  After the police leave, everyone comes down from the attic.  Koscik tells Tuvia that the refugees have to go with him.  Tuvia is reluctant to take them, but he agrees.  He asks Koscik if Bernicki and his men were the one who killed his parents?  Yes. 

One of the new group of Jewish refugees is Shimon Haretz who knows Tuvia because the young man was his student at one time.  Tuvia admits he was not a good student.  They arrive at camp and the new group is introduced to the others. 

Tuvia makes a trip to the house of Bernicki.  The policeman is eating dinner with his wife and two older sons.  Tuvia shoots the two sons dead when they try to resist and then he executes Bernicki with a bullet to the head.  He leaves the wife alone and goes. 

Cousin Tamara and others arrives at the camp in the forest. 

Perelaz Forest Camp.  October 1941.  One of the men at camp tells Zus and Tuvia that Lila is her "forest wife".  Two more arrive at camp:  Peretz and Jacov.  They came from Horodyszcze and break the news that of 3,000 Jews in the town, there are only 50 survivors.  Zus asks the men if they know Sonia Bielski?  Yes, but she's dead.  Zus's child is also dead.  Zus feels sick and wanders off into the forest away from camp and cries.   

Zus wants revenge in the worst way.  He organizes a group of raiders.  They attack a farm with a truck that was used to transport Jews to their deaths.  They kill a number of Germans and collaborators and burn the truck. 

Zus and Tuvia set up an ambush along a key road through the forest.  At night a German soldier on a motorcycle comes by and they knock him off his cycle by the use of a rope stretched across the road.  They kill him and quickly throw his body off the road and into the forest.  A car approaches filled with German soldiers.  It stops at the motorcycle in the road.  They start looking for the rider.  The Jewish strike force attacks them.  A real gunfight develops, but all the Germans are killed. 

As the men take the weapons and ammunition from the German dead, a whole truckload of German soldiers comes up the road.  The Bielski otriad (Russian term for official partisan commands) gets ready to fight, not knowing exactly what they are facing.  They pay a high price for their boldness as a machine gun opens up on them and kills or wounds some of the men.  The truck stops and German soldiers jump out.  The partisans have to run for their lives.  Zus and Tuvia get away, but they are worried that Asael has been killed or captured.  Tuvia is upset that the ambush was too costly for them.  The people in the camp are also upset because they wanted food not dead Germans and dead partisans. 

Tuvia and others go to visit Koscik and they find him hanged in the barn with a sign on him saying:  "Jew lover."  They bury Koscik.  His wife takes the partisans to a field.  At the base of a haystack she lifts up a cover to reveal Asael.  Zus and Tuvia are very happy to see their brother.  With Asael are two young women, Bella and Chaya.  Asael likes the blonde Chaya. 

Back at camp Arkady Luhczanski starts flirting with Chaya.  A new man comes into the camp by the name of Ben Zion.  He has bad news for Tuvia.  His wife was killed last week.  Bella seems to like Zus.  She talks with him and tells him:  "I want protection."  She places his hand on her breast. 

A sentry comes in to say that there are Germans looking for Jews coming their way.  Everyone starts to leave.  The Germans shoot up the camp.  They were brought there by an old farmer off whom Zus took half his milk delivery going to the Germans.  Most of the men are not Germans but Belarus policemen.  The old farmer yells that this will teach the thieves that they can't steal from the farmers.  Zus wings the man in his right arm and shouts that if he doesn't keep quiet he will shoot him dead for sure.   The policemen realize that the partisans are too many and too well-armed and they retreat.

Now the Bielski otriad will have to find a new area in which they can build a new camp.  Zus is mad at Tuvia for being too soft on the farmers and others.  He says winter will be coming soon and they have no shelter.  And all this because Tuvia couldn't do what has to be done.  The group is on the move.  Zus and Tuvia go on a scouting party ahead of the group.  They run into some Russian partisans.  They take Zus and Tuvia to see their commander, Viktor Panchenko of the October otriad.  Viktor says that the Bielski otriad steals from villagers loyal to them.  They are, after all, soldiers of the Red Army.  Tuvia stresses that they fight a common enemy.  He says they can work together.  Viktor lets the Bielskis leave.  Back at home base, the people are building shelters for everyone. 

A newcomer named Yitzhak has arrived from a ghetto where people are being killed daily.  Zus and Tuvia have different ideas of what role they should be playing and they end up in a fist fight.  The larger Zus gets the advantage over Tuvia, but Tuvia hits him in the crotch and Zus goes down.  Tuvia is just about to smash in Zus's head with a rock when Asael screams:  "Tuvia!"  Tuvia lets him up and and walks away.  Zus asks for people to join him.  They will leave to join those who fight.  Asael stays with Tuvia.  Eight fighters leave with Zus. 

Chaya is concerned for her parents who are in the ghetto where the daily killings are taking place.  She asks Asael to help her parents.  Tuvia and Asael decide to go into the ghetto to bring out those who want to come.   Quite a few come with them, among them Chaya's mother and father.  They bring them to the camp where Tuvia formally welcomes them.  Bella goes to Asael to tell him to go to Chaya and ask her the important question.  Asael goes to Chaya but he has a hell of a time getting the words out.  Chaya makes it easy for him by saying:  "I accept.  I do."  They are married in a ceremony right in the forest. 

Zus is part of an ambush of German troops.  He is a fierce and aggressive fighter and deadly on the Germans. 

Nalibocka Forest Camp.  December 1941.  The people are very hungry.  Tuvia kills his horse so the people can have something to eat.  He likes a woman named Lilka and goes to see her.  She is going on a food mission and Tuvia says he can get her out of it.  Lilka says she wants to do her part.  He gives her his extra coat and a pistol for protection. 

A wounded sentry returns to the camp and says there are Germans all over the place.  The Germans are everywhere.  Tuvia worries about Lilka because there has been no sign of the food mission.  A wolf attacks Lilka and she shoots it dead.  She brings it back with her other food to eat. 

Typhus is starting to get a hold in the camp.  Tuvia goes to see Viktor.  Viktor say the medicine has to be saved to use only on the partisan fighters.  Tuvia stand firm and says he must insist.  They need medicine.  Zus has an idea.  They will attack and knock out a radio transmitter and in the process grab their medicines.  Tuvia accepts the idea.  At night Tuvia drives the truck that goes to the installation with the radio transmitter.  Zus and a number of partisans rush into the building with the radio transmitter, but find themselves in a fight for their lives.  The partisan soldiers are shot and killed, except for Zus, who is badly wounded.  Zus finishes the Germans off and painfully grabs all the medicine and puts them in a sack.  He makes it to the truck and yells at Tuvia to get going. 

Tuvia is very sick.  Egotistical Arkady Luhczanski takes advantage of this to grab more power.  There is a fight in the food line.  Arkady has the philosophy that the partisan fighters should get more food than the others, while Tuvia says everyone will share equally in the food. 

In Viktor's camp one of the Jewish men comes back all beat up.  Gramov and two other men beat him because he is a Jew.  This makes Zus very mad and he goes into Viktor and in the presence of Gramov reports that a Jewish soldier has been beaten because of his religion.  Viktor makes Gramov apologize to Zus.  Zus is not satisfied, but he will not push the issue.  He leaves. 

Tuvia has gotten sicker and Arkady  and his men really start to take over.   He bullies the others to get what he wants.  Tuvia decides to get up and stop him.  He tells Arkady to stop, but the man says that Tuvia is no longer commander of the camp.  Tuvia starts to turn around as if to go back to his cabin, but swirls around with his pistol in his hand and shoots Arkady in the chest.  The man goes down dead.  Tuvia then challenges Arkady's second in command, who backs down.  Good thing for him, because Tuvia was prepared to execute him too.  He tells Arkady's buddies to take the body way out into the forest and leave it for the wolves to eat. 

Standing up to Arkady makes Lilka like Tuvia even more.  And now she decides to take care of him.  She gives him medicine and watches over him.  Tuvia sleeps for two day.  When he finally awakens, Lilka tells him that his fever broke in the night.  He is going to be okay. 

Tuvia is back on his feet.  A photo is taken of all the partisan fighters together.  Cousin Tamara is pregnant.  She was raped by the Germans when she was escaping.  Nevertheless, she tells Lilka that she won't give the baby up.  (Tuvia had said there will be no pregnancies and babies in the camp.)

When Tuvia hears and then sees the new baby, he again says there will be no babies in camp.  Lilka goes to speak to him.  She tells Tuvia that he must let the baby live.  Tarmara was raped by the Germans.  She urges Tuvia to be "kinder".  Tuvia relents.  Lilka kisses him.  They kiss each other. 

The news is that the Germans are on the move.  A captured German is brought into camp.  Some of the people become so angry when they see the man that they starts hitting him.  Tuvia does not intervene.  Soon an entire group is beating the German to death.   Papers found on the German say that there will be a massive assault on the forest by an entire division in two days. 

Tuvia and Lilka are definitely together now.  They are definitely both lovers and friends. 

Viktor is pulling out his partisans.  Zus asks:  "What about the Bielski otriad?"  Viktor says they will have to work this out for themselves.  Zus thinks he's just going to abandon the Jews. 

At the Jewish camp, Tuvia and others watch a German scouting plane overhead.  Tuvia is very worried and he suddenly decides they have to leave.  He shouts:  "We are leaving!  Now!"  As everyone starts grabbing weapons and ammunition and other necessities, the dive bombers descend on the area of the camp and drop their bombs.  Quite a few of the people in the camp are killed by the bombs.   Some people get into the shelters for protection, but a direct hit kills everyone in one of the shelters.  Tuvia gets knocked down by the concussion of a bomb and his hearing is lessened.  When the bombing ends, the shout goes up that the German infantry is pushing forward. 

Tuvia tells everyone to leave.  A few of the partisans will stand and fight to delay the onslaught of the Germans.  These partisans try to do their best but they are cut down by the massive number of Germans coming at them.   Tuvia leads the people out of the area.  They move along until they hit a huge marsh area.  Tuvia seems paralyzed by doubt as what to do.  Asael returns from the fight against the German onslaught and shouts:  "Into the marsh!"  He says they will make a rope out of belts and they will go in as a unit, the stronger helping the weaker.  The group does make a chain and they go into the marsh.  They make it all the way across the marsh and onto dry land.  They are relaxing after the tremendous exertion in the marsh, but their peace is interrupted by the sound of a German tank coming their way.  The tank opens fires and the Jewish people start taking heavy loses.  With the tank is quite a few German infantry.  It's a fight for survival for the Jews who have their backs to the marsh.

Tuvia works his way around to the side of the German onslaught.  He and Asael kill the Germans trying to set up a machinegun position.  Tuvia grabs the machine gun and uses it to open fire on the Germans on their left flank   A lot of the German infantry are killed, but soon more and more firepower is directed at Tuvia and his machine gun.  It doesn't look good, but Zus and his men arrive to save the day.  They come in from behind the Germans and now the Germans are being hit from three sides.  All the Germans are killed.  Zus throws a hand grenade into the tank turret and that's the end of the tank's activity. 

When all the Germans are dead Zus looks for Tuvia.  Tuvia comes out of the woods to greet him.  Later Zus reunites with Bella.  Tuvia asks Zus where is the rest of his unit?  Zus says:  "Good question." 

Now they are faced with the hard task of building a new camp.  But it's good that they are alive. 

"The Jewish otria lived in the forest for two more years.  In their new camp they had a school, a hospital and a nursery.  They were always hunted, but their numbers continued to grow.  By the war's end, 1,200 had survived.  Asael joined the Russian army and was killed in action six months later.  He never saw the child he fathered with Chaya.  Zus went to New York City, USA and started a trucking business.  Tuvia joined him.  they worked together for thirty years.  Tuvia and Lilka remained married for the rest of their lives.  The Bielskis never sought recognition for what they did.  The children and grandchildren of those they saved now number in the tens of thousands."


Good action movie.  And it was good to see the Jewish people strike back at the Germans.  We usually see them getting slaughtered in the World War II movies and it's good to see the Germans get what they so richly deserved.  Daniel Craig (Tuvia Bielski) was very good, but I thought that Liev Schreiber (Zus Bielski) was just as good or better.  The Zus character seemed to be richer than the more one-dimensional Tuvia as Zus more visibly suffered for his people.   The love stories weren't all that great, but I guess you could say the action is more of the star than the love affairs in this film. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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