Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008) is a companion piece of sorts to Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) in that both films ask whether violent retribution is the answer to initial violence. Certainly, violence seems much more necessary in Defiance than in Munich, for the Jewish refugees are at many points literally fighting for their lives, whereas the Israeli operatives in Munich commit violence against those who have caused them no personal physical harm. Had the Bielski partisans not applied violence against the Nazis, literally tens of thousands of lives would not exist today.
Daniel Craig, still carrying his license to kill, adopts a Belarusian accent here and proves to us once again that he is a masterful actor to watch and admire. Not once in the film is he unconvincing as Tuvia Bielski, and there are many areas where he could have fumbled and come off looking silly. Take, for instance, the scene in which the people in the forest camp descend into a chaotic argument: Tuvia screams over the rest and manages to draw their attention. This is typical Hollywood — the main character having the uncanny ability to scream just a little bit louder than the rest, which allows him to take center stage when everyone quiets — but Craig doesn’t flinch, and instead drives right on through and then delivers a wonderful little admonishment to the camp. But credibility is a necessity, not just a nicety, in a film about the Holocaust, for even a slightly silly performance would insult those who suffered through those evil times.
Equally impressive in this film is Liev Schreiber as Zus, one of Tuvia’s brothers. We see him carrying a hatchet around in the first scenes of the movie, which seems to emphasize the axe he has to grind. Indeed, while Tuvia kills Nazis out of necessity, Zus takes pleasure in it, and even goes so far as to leave his brothers and join the Russian partisans just to get some extra shots in. Like Craig, Schreiber sidesteps the potential silliness and delivers an engrossing performance that makes us feel for him — not once do we blame Zus for his Nazi blood-lust. The character could have easily been a caricature, but Schreiber thankfully doesn’t allow this to happen.
But to return to that question: is violent retribution in the face of initial violence justifiable? Tuvia says early in the film, “We cannot lose anyone…Our revenge is to live.” That sounds simple enough, but to be sure, the frequent Nazi raids make this difficult. Thus, Tuvia soon concedes that in order to live, they will need to kill their attackers. I contend, therefore, that Defiance demonstrates that violent retribution is justifiable — but only as a last resort. Thoughtless and heated vengeance only leads to pain and suffering, as an early bungled raid on the Nazis shows: the Bielskis stop and kill a Nazi soldier on a motorcycle and several Nazi officers in a car. But they get too cocky and soon find themselves under attack by another carload of Nazis. Some of the partisans are killed, and the Bielskis’ brother, Asael, just barely escapes with his life. Thus, Defiance tells us, we should think to be more like Tuvia and less like Zus: willing to enact violent retribution only when all other options have failed. This seems to be a favorite theme for Zwick, whose previous films — especially The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond — show us people like Tuvia who end up with no choice but to be violent. Indeed, Defiance concludes with the statement that the Bielskis eventually saved over 1,200 Jewish lives, and that the grand- and great-grandchildren of these survivors today number well over 10,000 — all because the Bielskis employed violence against their Nazi oppressors. Those are numbers potent enough to make even the staunchest pacifist question his beliefs.