Defiance belongs to a very old tradition of war movies about courageous men and women battling oppressive foes, crossed with a relatively new genre of post-Munich tales of combative Jews you shouldn't mess with. It even stars arguably the hardiest of the Munich avengers, Daniel Craig, on leave from his 007 duties, as the leader of a real-life band of partisans fighting the Nazi Germans in occupied Belarus during World War II — the concept being that these particular Jews fought back.
The story opens in 1941, just after the invading Germans have massacred most of the Jews in the home village of the four Bielski brothers. Eldest brother Tuvia (Craig) and younger siblings Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and the mute Aron (George Mackay) find their parents murdered and immediately take to the nearby forest. They don't come out until four years later. As it happens, Tuvia and Zus already have a history of trouble with the police (smuggling) and have hidden out in the woods before, but once they start camping they're joined by increasing numbers of bewildered Jewish townsfolk, also running for their lives, people unaccustomed to living in the open. The Bielskis' job, which becomes the centerpiece of director Edward Zwick's movie, is to not only protect themselves from the Nazis — as well as from anti-Semitic farmers and the brutal, "official" Red Army partisans — but to establish a collective community from scratch in the midst of the Russian winter.
This they do in regulation, middle-of-the-road war movie style. Brisk, well choreographed firefight action scenes alternate with occasionally maudlin dramatizations of outdoor hardships, dissent, and, yes, romance. Wise brother Tuvia, hailed as the Moses of the Bielski Otriad (partisan band) by its members, tries his best to be fair and open-minded but ultimately is worn down by events. A friendly farmer asks him candidly: "Why is it so fucking hard to be friends with a Jew?" Tuvia's reply: "Try being one." His main objective is the liberation of his people. Zus is the hard-liner, a true warrior who leaves the blood on his face after a fistfight and glories in slaughtering Nazis. Zus also carries a chip on his shoulder for "the pretentious Jews, Jews who stuck up their noses at us," and who now rely on the Bielskis for protection. Craig tackles his role with the no-nonsense stoic heroism of a Kirk Douglas. Schreiber's Zus is a bit more complex and hard to manage, channeling his rage through a submachine gun just to keep from crying.
Nothing unexpected crops up, the way it did in, say, Elem Klimov's masterful Soviet WWII movie Come and See. Director Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, Glory) does not deal in gratuitous grotesquery or far-fetched metaphor. "Operatic" and "surreal" are not in his vocabulary. When he includes a shot of an open mass grave filled with naked corpses, it's done reverently, in one long shot. A minor, nagging quibble: When the Jews speak among themselves, it's in English. When they speak to Russians and when Russians speak to other Russians, it's in Russian — but not in every single instance. The Germans speak German at all times. It's the old "our side" language conundrum — in an American film, the good guys usually speak American English. Except when they don't. Craig and Schreiber handle their Russian lines pretty well and generally refrain from corny accents when they're communicating in English.
The supporting cast adds a bit of dimension to the two main Bielskis without straining unnecessarily. The most economical acting jobs are by Ravil Isyanov as the Red Army commander Panchenko, a study in sinister pragmatism, and Rolandas Boravskis as Panchenko's loathsome good old boy second in command, Gramov. All Zwick really has to do is set them up in a shot — their faces do the rest. Among the unhappy campers a few characters stand out: Allan Corduner as Shimon Haretz, the teacher (hum a few bars of "Tradition!"); Mark Feuerstein and Tomas Arana as kvetching intellectuals; and partisan babe Alexa Davalos as Tuvia's "forest wife," Lilka. The comic relief of Lazar the goofball camp sentry (played by Jonjo O'Neill) wears itself out quickly.
Zwick and writer Clayton Frohman based their screenplay on the book of the same name by author Nechama Tec. The chronicle of the Bielski Otriad, alongside that of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, remains a conspicuous example of Jews' refusal to march along quietly to their doom — and if the recent holiday season contained more than its share of Holocaust/Nazi films, at least Defiance refuses to wallow in guilt for its own sake. You can credit the "James Bond effect" for that.
Defiance takes itself very seriously. But several hundred miles west, more than sixty years later, and two or three mighty leaps of disbelief away, a gay zombie named Otto is staggering toward Berlin with carnal thoughts on what's left of his mind.
The recently deceased Otto, blessed with Goth album-cover good looks despite his putrescent skin and moldy clothing, is the creation of Bruce LaBruce, the Canadian-born homo-punk/queercore auteur whose fuck-you film titles — No Skin Off My Ass, Super 8 ½, Hustler White, The Raspberry Reich — are usually more fun than the movies themselves. Otto; or, Up with Dead People, which played the Frameline festival last June and is only now gaining theatrical release, finds LaBruce in the middle of his German period, shooting on location with a German crew and an international cast headed by Belgian actor Jey Crisfar as Otto.
If we take away the entrail chewing and the gay zombie orgy, i.e., the money shots, Otto vaguely resembles Kaspar Hauser, the legendary "lost boy." It's part of LaBruce's shtick to make fun of pretentious art films, but Otto's black-and-white intro montage, followed by our hero rising out of a churchyard grave, is pretty good by any standard. Otto stinks and his eyes are odd. "It's not easy being undead," he says, just before chomping on a giant road-kill bunny on his way to the big city. This movie takes advantage of the fact that, at any given hour, most of the people in Berlin look like zombies anyway. Except for the self-indulgent middle third, which looks like any other student zombie film (do you have any idea how many student zombie films are made every year?), it's a highly entertaining horror spoof, with gay porno bells and whistles. LaBruce screws up a couple of details, though — zombies don't ever take bubble baths, not even gay zombies.
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