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Movies | Viewers who know their Bible will get more out of Edward Zwick's Defiance

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

Very little stings the ears like Rudolf Hess' horrifying 1934 Nuremberg rally speech, but that's the sound that Edward Zwick has chosen to open his new movie. "Hitler is Germany!" Hess screams in his native tongue, "Just as Germany is Hitler!"

If this veneration of the Führer seems sickening today, imagine the fear of Polish Jews remembering this footage as tanks rolled across their border from the Germany he controlled, or, as Hess would have it, embodied. Atop a recently murdered Jewish man, then, is the only fitting place for the film's title: Defiance.

Zwick's film follows three Polish farmers-adult brothers named Tuvia (Daniel Craig, looking exactly like Steve McQueen), Zus (the marvelous Liev Schreiber), and Asael Bielski (a surprisingly strong Jamie Bell)-as they flee into the Naliboki forest after the Germans take over their town of Stankiewicze, killing their parents.

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Upon discovering that a local policeman informed on their family, Tuvia and Zus vow revenge, but when it comes it's anything but satisfying. Blinded with rage, Tuvia storms into the man's home, brutally killing him and his two sons as they sit petrified and unarmed at the dinner table (the film is rated R largely for this sequence and some swearing). Beyond what Tuvia has done to the three men, though, we see what he's done to their wife and mother. "Kill me, too!" she sobs, kneeling in front of him. Tuvia flees, disgusted with himself and with the situation that has turned him into a rabid dog. And he looks like an animal-in the aftermath, Zwick films him looking furtively, angrily around the forest, all twitches and panting, panicky breath.

What follows is a slight fictionalization of the astonishing truth: Partly as penance, partly out of human decency, Tuvia and the rest of the Bielskis (by then they've rescued their youngest brother, Aron, too) take in all comers, creating a small, mobile city of displaced Jews in the woods on the Polish/Belarussian border.

As more ghettos are razed or deported en masse, the city grows more populous and more problematic: How will they survive? Where will they find medicine if they're sick? How will they defend themselves?

More than any film I've seen this year, Defiance is a rich experience for grown-up religious conservatives. Between the brotherly bickering over which Bible story they're acting out ("Vengeance is mine-who said that, Tuvia?" demands the restless Zus as he goes off to do God's work for Him) and the layered, clever Mosaic imagery, movie buffs who know their Bible are likelier to have a good time at Defiance than anyone else. In particular, the scenes of Tuvia and Asael leading their followers across the waters of a Polish swamp are wonderfully evocative, and not of Washington crossing the Delaware.

And Zwick indulges in a little defiance of his own-at one point, a raped woman angrily demands to take her assailant's baby to term, regardless of the restrictions on pregnancy that Tuvia has tried to lay down. "There is life inside me, it is the only thing keeping me going, and I won't give it up," she announces. Good for her, and good for Zwick.

The ethical complexities of the movie make it worth chewing over-When is a group of widows and orphans also a lynch mob, for example?-but the action sequences (largely of the screenwriters' invention) are frankly stunning, too. In Zwick's other films, the moral perspective has been secular; here, it's probably best articulated by one of the film's minor characters, a rabbi who spends most of the movie arguing with (and consequently befriending) a young intellectual.

"I almost lost my faith, but you were sent by God to save me," he observes to Tuvia.

"Ridiculous," Tuvia replies.

"I know. But just in case, I thank Him, and I thank you."

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