Friday, February 6, 2009
To give you a good idea of just how obvious and leaden Edward Zwick's Holocaust survival drama Defiance is, I need only point to its opening minutes: black and white footage of Hitler, shots of Jews being rounded up by SS troops, processed to make it look "old," and then, intercut with these images, are earnest titles giving facts and figures about the Holocaust, telling us that the Nazis are rounding up Jews. Thanks, I think I've heard that story before. This epidemic of exposition is typical of Zwick, who seems to feel that he's not really doing his job as a director if he's not hitting his audience over the head with his film's grand messages. What's odd is that the film is based on a story that most people really haven't heard before, and Zwick does this potentially fantastic material a grave disservice by treating it with such a heavy hand, by warping it so that it fits into familiar Hollywood molds. There's an exciting idea here — a group of Jewish refugees in Eastern Europe escape into a forest, where they rally around a trio of tough, charismatic brothers who variously attempt to forge a community, become bandits gathering food and supplies, and seek bloody revenge on the Germans. Why then is the film so dull?
Certainly, it's not because of the central performances, which are mostly strong, albeit confined within the limited parameters of the Hollywood action hero. The three brothers are Zus (Liev Schreiber), Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Asael (Jamie Bell), and all three actors turn in fine performances, particularly Bell and Schreiber, who show more nuance in comparison to Craig's Bond-like stone face and cold stare. Zwick doesn't allow a whole lot of emotional range here, and yet oddly enough he seems to want the story's central conflict to be between the vengeful, violent, warrior-like Zus and the more peaceful, reserved Tuvia, who prefers community building and food-gathering to making war. The film sets up a dialectic, more or less, between government and army, even within the makeshift communities and armies that these refugees manage to build for themselves. And yet this conflict never really progresses beyond abstraction, beyond a surface-level glossing of the issues involved, which are really quite heavy: the ethics of revenge, the question of collaboration and who is culpable for the Germans' crimes, the capacity for abused and tormented people to turn to violence themselves. The film raises some of these issues in passing, but never treats them with any complexity or intellectual curiosity.
There is a scene here that is very much like a certain famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock's World War II drama Lifeboat, a scene that is as famous as it is precisely for its ambiguity, for its courage in allowing the victims and their tormentors to switch places, for its willingness to treat morality in a serious way. The Hitchcock film is not one of his best, mainly because it commits some of the same sins Zwick commits throughout this film (heavy-handedness, preachiness), but this one particular moment is masterful. Zwick knows enough to rip off the scene, but he robs it of its ambiguity, its implicit morally engaged perspective; he has his heroes all literally turn their backs on the scene and walk away, essentially shrugging off any of the troublesome questions that might have been raised at this point in a better film.
The film's ponderous, clichéd quality is evident throughout its length. There are few points at which Zwick does not make the choice that results in the most obvious image, the most obvious line, the most obvious possible way of representing his story's themes onscreen. The tension between religious sentiment and intellectual socialism is represented, of course, by a kindly old man of faith and a young publisher of socialist tracts who become friends and play chess together while playfully arguing about abstractions in sound bite form. The film's themes are all so broadly telegraphed, so basic and trite, that one never gets a feel for the story as more than a high-school level civics/ethics primer. There's a visceral, exciting, thematically complex story in here somewhere, but Zwick certainly doesn't know how to tell it. He resorts, whenever possible, to formulaic plot devices that constrain a potentially remarkable story to a dull, plodding, heartstring-tugging wartime thriller.
The film's failure is most evident in its predictability, its tendency to fit this highly unusual story into a readymade story structure. Of course the camp has one loudmouth troublemaker who you just know is going to face off against Tuvia by the end of the film. Of course there's the obligatory starvation montage once winter sets in and food grows scarce. Of course by the end of the film all three brothers have women, though none of the love stories, nor the women themselves, are developed beyond the most perfunctory stage. I could go on, but why bother? The film occasionally stumbles upon some compelling images — the early scenes of well-dressed Jewish refugees appearing in the middle of a forest have a slightly surreal, non-sequitur quality that the film never goes any further with — but on the whole it's a bland, painfully dull affair.