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By Matthew Sorrento | January 14, 2009

Just in time for awards season comes “Defiance,” the next entry in the immortal but nebulous genre of the holocaust film. It is odd territory this year, with the moralistically inane “The Reader,” centered on Kate Winslet’s sexed-up Nazi collaborator, and the “Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” which appears to out-sentimentalize Spielberg’s intentions in “Schindler’s List.” (More than an Oscar winner, Spielberg’s film may be immortalized as the flick to which Jerry Seinfeld made out.)

The best entry in the genre remains Polanski’s “The Pianist,” since the filmmaker knew how to treat such heavy material. He doesn’t spare any of the pain of the world’s greatest mass murder, but throws in suspense to make it all digestible. In the end, Polanski fashions a riff on solitude, imposed at the hands of an omnipresent, god-like villain. The result is a clever genre film, inspired by truth but committed to telling a story. That Polanski directed the film supports the “you-had-to-be-there” argument, one that Hemingway charged against Stephen Crane’s writing on the American Civil War.

In the end, holocaust for pity’s sake throws the weight of the world upon viewers. A light hand, like Polanski’s, can make us recall earthy horrors best. With “Defiance,” Ed Zwick (Hollywood’s undergraduate honors history major) finds a portal into the genre. The film chases down a shot of genocide with the the war film, which has made a slight appearance before in the holocaust pic, but never so fully blown. Zwick is undoubtedly fixated on battlegrounds, mostly with noteworthy twists: his 1989 Oscar darling, “Glory,” tapped into Civil War via the story of an African American brigade, and the “Last Samurai” brings a Union officer to Japan as an unlikely mentor. “Defiance” was preceded by the hot-topic “Blood Diamond,” which tread upon battle grounds to reach a genocide theme. Now co-writer/director Zwick has arms and their men defying the holocaust.

Zwick has a distinct eye, even if he never veers too far from the familiar. The German invasion hammers through Belorussian territory in the film’s opening minutes. Opening black-and-white photography mixes with real-life footage, before Zwick’s camera fades into a richly, dark-hued tone – full-bodied yet honest. Brothers Tuvia – top-billed Daniel Craig, who’s commitment likely got this weighty project off the ground – and Zus (Liev Schreiber) are farmboy toughs who retreat to the woods after their family and village has been desolated. Outsiders to their Christian neighbors and well as Jewish city folk, they help escapees by using fortitude, and a fair share of a*s-kicker mentality.

Vengeance brims surprisingly fast in a surprising turn, when Tuvia drops all other concerns to find the man who killed his father. He has only four bullets in his pistol, just enough to scream for justice and then murder in cold blood. Here Zwick lays down the cards: he commits to serving up battle cries in genre territory owned by sentiment – an issue this film can’t settle, as we will see. We realize Tuvia’s brutality to be fair game: the refugees materialize from the trees as both genocide witnesses and wanderers. Their experiences will change history – they are, in the end, Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” in spite of modernity.

Tuvia and Zus are joined by younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell), who throws in an unlikely development by outrunning a pack of Nazis after a nighttime attack. Bell turns in a hard-face performance, thus inspired by the two rugged leads. Yet all the while, an idealized spirit haunts the entire film, as if classical storytelling puppet-strings the ordeal to safety.

Even if the Nazis have moved on through Belarus and past the setting, too often their attacks upon the secluded militia are softened just enough to keep the story alive. Zwick commits to characterizing the community of refugees, thus tying “Defiance” to the frontier action tradition of the Hollywood cinema, in which travelers establish themselves and their relationships, and then fight toward liberation. True to the classical style but not the circumstances, the filmmakers stop time to set up romantic interests for all three leads. Bell even ties the knot under some expressionist snowfall, and Craig gets Alexa Davalos (“The Mist”), a face the camera will always love.

Yet, always a craftsman, Zwick finds much detail in a minimal setting. The woodland camp consists of rags and rifles, though every wrap and cartridge click points us back to the collective goal. Craig and Schreiber can keep things interesting, especially when these brothers-at-odds almost battle to the death, in which the former nearly outs the other with a Cain-like rock to the face. From there Schreiber’s Zus departs, to camp with a Russian brigade bent on defeating the Nazis, even if their commitment to the Jewish camp may be duplicitous. The Russians bring more verity to the unlikely ordeal, especially since Zwick and co-writer Clayton Frohman deploy them like John Ford’s cavalry just in time.

The script roots the dialog in the Jewish tradition. An extended “Exodus” theme – an inspirational metaphor from Biblical times through middle-age repression to the Zionist movement – finds mythic roots for the narrative, with the help of outcries from the Torah. Yet the loose-cannon brawlers want this film to be an actioner, one that uses a wartime premise for genre purposes, as did genre innovators Samuel Fuller and Robert Aldrich. A little sentimentality can fuel a lot of action, yet Zwick buries his film in cloying guilt, in the end sinking “Defiance” with the holocaust film’s bait.

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