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Film / Defiance

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"Every day that we survive is an act of faith."

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Tuvia Bielski

Defiance is a 2008 film directed by Edward Zwick, who co-wrote the movie with Clayton Frohman, based on a book (Defiance: the Bielski Partisans) by Nechama Tec. It stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell (of Billy Elliot fame). It follows the Bielski brothers, four Belarusian Jews who escape the first wave of SS murders in late 1941, only to decide that they need to fight back. The resulting resistance group grows, taking in more and more displaced Jews, until it is a genuine thorn in the side of the Nazi advance, forcing the Germans to retaliate.

Not to be confused with the show or video game of the same name.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Events that took place between December 1941 and the liberation of Belarus in 1944 are compressed into a ten-month span or so in 1941–42, including the establishment of a permanent settlement in the Naliboki Forest (before 1943 the Bielski Partisans were nomadic), and the liberation of the Iwie ghetto.
  • Age Lift: Asael was the second-oldest of the Bielski brothers, and Tuvia's Number Two. In the film, he is several years younger than Tuvia and Zus, and his portion of the film is a Coming of Age Story.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: The corrupt Police Chief Bernicki who helped the Nazis round up Jews and murdered the Bielski brothers' parents begs for his life when Tuvia confronts him. It doesn't do him any good.
  • And This Is for...: Before executing the police chief Bernicki, Tuvia makes it plain he's doing it for all those who've lost or had their lives destroyed because Bernicki handed them over to the Nazis.
    '''Tuvia: For my parents, David and Bella Bielski. For my brothers and all the others.
  • Artistic License – History: The real Bielski Partisans simply hid in the forest protecting Jews, and never fought the Germans openly.
  • Based on a True Story: About the actual Bielski Partisans.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Zus and those who left with him to join the Russians return in the nick of time to hit the Germans attacking the rest of the group in the rear.
  • The Cavalry: At the end of the movie, the fleeing Bielski Partisans are surrounded by the German army, then saved by the sudden arrival of Zus and his men.
  • Child by Rape: One of the Jewish women became pregnant by a German soldier raping her. She's afraid to reveal it since Tuvia banned pregnancy as they can't take care of an infant, but he lets it slide once the baby's born.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Some Belarusians collaborate with the Germans and are eventually murdered by the partisans. Also, the Real Life Bielskis served in the Soviet administration of occupied Poland, which has made their positive portrayal controversial to many Poles.
  • Cool Old Guy: the watchmaker who is able to repair broken rifles, and the brothers' old schoolteacher.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: At the beginning of this film, we see black-and-white film footage of German soldiers rounding up Jews. We cut to a scene which you swiftly realize is not contemporary footage, which then turns into color. At the end of the film, things return to black-and-white.
  • Eat the Dog: As the refugees are starving in the depths of winter, Tuvia makes the difficult decision to shoot his horse (a gift from the Red Army) so they'll have something to eat. They also eat one of the Germans' dogs that they killed as it was attacking them.note 
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: Lazar, the primary sentry at the camp, keeps missing the arrival of newcomers, or challenging people who are leaving from the camp and therefore must be safe. It gets to be kind of a Running Gag.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Though the Bielski Partisans did protect and save thousands of Belarusian Jews, there were some less heroic things they did too. In contrast to the film, the Partisan leaders held more resources than the rest, and took first pick of the women as sexual partners. Also, there are controversial allegations that they participated in NKVD-ordered atrocities against Poles that resisted giving supplies to the Soviet Partisans.
  • I Have a Family: The Jewish Partisans capture a terrified German soldier, who tells them he has a wife and two kids. One of the partisans yells out "So did I!" They beat the German to death while yelling about their lost relatives.
  • Know When to Fold Them: Arkady's cronies having seen a pissed-off Tuvia gun down their leader, quickly fall back into line.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": The partisans and Jewish refugees when, having survived crossing treacherous marshland, they hear a rumble and spot German infantry headed by a Panzer III coming right at them.
  • Oscar Bait: It's Based on a True Story, set during the Holocaust, and follows a community of Belarusian Jews as they hide in the forests and fight back against the Nazis (in other words: Oscar gold). It has the fairly standard dark and gritty tone favored by Academy voters, with a brooding Anti-Hero (played by frequent award winner Daniel Craig) forced into cruel, angsty moral dilemmas that play out as if saying "you seeing this, voters?" The film ends with a short montage of the fates of the people depicted, with real life pictures and the assurance that the descendants of this group numbers in the tens of thousands today. And it cut its release as close to Oscar time as possible, with a limited release on December 31st of the qualifying year. Ironically enough, in spite of having pretty much everything needed for a total Oscar blowout, it only received nominations for its music from both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.
  • La Résistance: The Bielski Partisans form such a group against German occupation of Belarus, as do the Soviet Partisans also featured in the movie.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Arkady, who tries to usurp control from Tuvia, does not get the dignity of a proper burial.
    Tuvia: Take his body into the forest. Leave it for the wolves.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: Isaac rushes a group of German soldiers with a live grenade, only to be shot a few yards into his charge and his grenade to blow up by his body. Made worse that he only needed to wait a few more seconds before help arrived, making his attempt even more futile.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Collaboration between the Bielski Partisans and Soviet Partisans happens to be quite problematic, thanks to rampant antisemitism from the Russian population.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Both Asael, and Lazar, the incompetent sentry, in the final act.
  • Tranquil Fury: While trying to scout a path around attacking Nazi infantry, Tuvia encounters a group of Germans trying to set up a machine gun in the bushes to slaughter the partisans on the flank. Tuvia doesn't say a word, just racks the slide of his gun with a look of icy rage, then emerges from the bushes and guns the Germans down.
  • Translation Convention: Yiddish is English with Just a Stupid Accent. Although Russian and German remain the same and are often subtitled, occasionally the main characters will speak English with Soviet soldiers, who are unlikely to have known Yiddish. Despite taking place in Belarus, Belarusian is never spoken.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The Bielski and Soviet Partisans have an uneasy alliance, with the latter not holding up their end very well.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The movie, being based on true events, ends with a black-white photo montage depicting the real Bielski brothers, and their fates after the war: Asael Bielski, the youngest, joins the Soviets in the war against the Germans, and was sadly killed in action before the birth of his daughter, while Tuvia and Zus soon starts a trucking firm in New York City.