| The incredible true story of the largest armed rescue operation of Eastern European Jews by Jewish brethren in World War II is brought to the screen by producer, director and screenwriter Edward Zwick (“The Last Samurai” and “Blood Diamond”).
A band of displaced Jewish partisans rose like a phoenix from the ashes of destroyed families and torched villages to form a hidden community in the forests of western Belorussia. They would number more than 1,200 Jews by 1944 and be among a small minority that was the exception to Jews being characterized as passive, helpless victims of the Holocaust.
An attention-grabbing opening set in August 1941 introduces us to the three Bielski brothers, who retreat to the woods after their mother and father are shot to death.
The oldest is Tuvia (Daniel Craig, the new James Bond), who becomes the reluctant leader of the group and is often compared to Moses. He places the highest value on living in freedom for as long as possible.
The middle brother, Zus (Liv Schreiber from “The Manchurian Candidate” and “A Walk on the Moon”), has an opposite point of view favoring a more violent form of retaliation against the Nazis and the local police collaborators who are paid a bounty for rounding up Jews. Zus proves to the Russians that Jews are not only good at dying, but can fight alongside comrades and drink vodka.
Teenager Asael (Jamie Bell from “Billy Elliot”) is the youngest, and is caught in the middle of the fierce rivalry between his two older siblings.
The movie draws parallels to the Exodus in Egypt with these wandering people living in fear and always on the lookout for German patrols. The movie presents a realistic depiction of the harsh conditions these people endured in order to survive.
The set locations chosen in Lithuania (within 100 miles from the actual outdoor site) add environmental authenticity. The splendid cinematography and one of the year’s best musical scores by acclaimed Oscar-nominated composer James Newton Howard (“The Prince of Tides,” “The Fugitive” and “Michael Clayton”) are major strengths.
It is a miracle that anyone survived in a world of pain, suffering and death. Despite the grim realities of daily living, there are isolated humorous moments. Romances bloom and unions are made between men and women.
Former French model Alexa Davalos makes the most of her part as Tuvia’s love interest, Lilka Titkin. Craig shows off his acting chops in the lead role. He exhibits a rugged determination and a charismatic soulfulness. Schreiber captures the brash volatility and outgoing personality of his character. Bell makes the biggest character arc, literally growing up before our eyes. His character goes from being an awkward adolescent to a fearless leader and responsible husband.
Anyone who values the freedoms we too often take for granted will feel an immediate kinship and connection to these brave and resourceful human beings. You will want to applaud every time a German soldier bites the dust. Your admiration grows as this story proceeds to its conclusion.
Regardless of your ethnic or religious background, you develop a sense of pride with the knowledge gained from the screenplay that some Jews fought back and were not innocent lambs led to the slaughter. The uplifting and inspirational ending will elicit tears of joy and thanksgiving.
The movie takes dramatic license with the true story that is given a more detailed account in the excellent non-fiction book “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans” by Nechama Tec.
The movie deftly balances nail-biting action sequences with intense drama as everyone tries to get along while facing the obstacles of disease, starvation and freezing temperatures.
This Holocaust epic deserves a commendation of merit for making us cognizant of an important and often overlooked event. It may well be one of the most important stories of our time if we trace the roots of succeeding generations back to the survivors of the partisan resistance movement.
Partially in Russian with English subtitles.
Keith Cohen, "The Movie Guy"