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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Defiance: Into the woods
A salute to Jews who resisted the Nazi death machine
on
When no one came to save them, they saved themselves.
When no one came to save them, they saved themselves.

"Jews don't fight."

"These Jews do."

And there you have it, the inspirational message imparted by Defiance, Edward Zwick's based-on-a-true-story movie about the Bielski brothers, who spent World War II holed up in the Belorussian forest with over a thousand of their fellow Jews, killing German soldiers when they had to and sometimes when they didn't have to. We've become so used to scenes of Jews being led to their slaughter that Defiance can't help but pack a punch. But there's a deeper message in there, too, about how simply surviving the Nazi death machine, keeping Jews alive, was a victory. That's a lot of deep inspiration for one movie to bear, and Zwick often succumbs to the importance of being earnest. But who can resist a movie about a group of people who, when no one came to save them, saved themselves? It's Schindler's List without Schindler.

But not without Daniel Craig, who plays Tuvia Bielski, literally a man on a white horse until the horse has to be shot for food. The Bielskis were peasant farmers not averse to a little smuggling on the side, and they knew how to survive in the wilderness. But how to save hundreds of others? That was trickier, and Defiance sets up an Old Testament rivalry between Tuvia, who wants to lead his people to the Promised Land, and his brother, Zus (Liev Schreiber), who wants to kill as many Germans as possible. Both will get their wishes, but not before the movie has wrestled mightily with capital-letter issues like Justice, Freedom and Community. Making up the rules as they go along, and breaking camp at a moment's notice, the wandering Jews keep the light of civilization going, setting up a library, a tannery, even a bathhouse.

Deeply inspirational! And just a little bit boring, partly because Zwick is a very conventional filmmaker, drawing from old movies as much as from life, and partly because he's a man on a white horse of his own, desperate to prove that Jews can fight with the best of them. One would have thought that that's already been proven several times over by the state of Israel, if not by Zohan, Adam Sandler's henna-rinsed commando. What the Bielski brothers accomplished should have been turned into a movie a long time ago, but by a director who was more intrigued than inspired. Zwick wants to burnish everything, bathe it in golden light. Even the dirty parts, the moral compromises, come out clean. Do these freedom fighters have to have formed a more perfect union for us to revere them? Wasn't surviving enough?

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