Program Notes: Defiance (2008)

Defiance could easily have been just a story about killing and revenge.

Well, there’s plenty of that in this based-on-fact effort from director Edward Zwick, but Defiance is also about something even more challenging – building a society more or less from scratch.

The movie begins with old newsreel footage of Nazis giving stiff-armed salutes and Jews being rounded up. Then the "newsreel" morphs into full color as three Jewish brothers – Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), Zus Bielski (Liev Schreiber) and Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell) – return to their parents’ farm to find a scene of slaughter.

Only their little brother (George MacKay) has survived a visit by an S.S. death squad. The kid is so traumatized he cannot speak.

Film Screening:
Defiance (2008)
Monday, Nov. 26 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

Retreating into the woods of their native Belarus, the siblings plot revenge against the local police chief helping the Germans with their extermination efforts. But their plan to survive by foraging hits a snag when first a handful – and then dozens – of fugitives from persecution show up seeking protection.

The volcanic Zus, who learns his wife and children have been killed, wants only to rip apart every German he can find. He resents all these needy city Jews cluttering up his warpath with pleas for food, shelter, and medicine.

One of the film’s more interesting themes is that the Bielskis aren’t particularly pious ... in fact in the early part of the German occupation they ran a black market operation.

Still, the more mature Tuvia has a conscience and feels obliged to look after his fellow Jews. He becomes the group’s leader and little by little supervises the creation of a new civilization in the woods, one of crude huts, communal meals, casual relationships (all three brothers take on "forest wives"), and its own set of laws brutally enforced.

For good luck, in his pocket Tuvia carries his parents’ mezuzah, a small case containing a sacred Hebrew prayer.

Tuvia and Zus often butt heads over how to run things, sometimes engaging in overt brawling ... at least until Zus leaves to hook up with a band of Russian partisans. The Russkies are anti-Semitic but will make an exception for a rabid German-killer.

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Defiance could go deeper in its contrasting of Zus the destroyer against Tuvia the builder, but that might slow things down. The screenplay by Zwick and Clayton Frohman (adapting Nechama Tec’s nonfiction Defiance: The Bielski Partisans) is above all else an action film that aims to inspire while thrilling us. Mostly it succeeds.

There’s plenty of shooting, but even without the threat of the Germans the Bielski group faces daunting odds: disease, lack of medicine and sanitation, dwindling food supplies, frigid winters.

In fact, Defiance takes place almost entirely outdoors. Its depiction of this rugged environment is enough to have you shivering in your nice warm seat.

The real star here isn’t an actor or director Zwick but rather history itself. Defiance brings to life a bit of the past few of us are aware of, a story of Jews who fought back, no matter how difficult the challenge.

Other films in the series “The Man Who Would Be Bond”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:


Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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