Summoning up ghosts
A UK region 2 DVD review of DEFIANCE by Camus
 
"The question is what would you do in a situation like this, how
would you defend yourself? You'd like to think that
you'd
protect your family, that you'd protect the people
around
you, but what would you be prepared to do to
actually
make that succeed, to protect yourself and
your family."
Ruminating on choices his character
made, actor Daniel Craig

 

Defiance is the remarkable true story of a small band of persecuted Jews in Poland during World War II.They managed to survive for years hidden in the woods while the Nazis swept through mainland Europe. For my cinema review, please click here. The movie works extremely well on DVD and this is due in no small part to the strength of the acting. It's the one aspect that hits you right between the eyes. The brothers' performances, played by the three principals, are extraordinary. Brotherhood is something Liev Schreiber seems to excel at right now. A gifted theatrical performer who has played his fair share of classics, Schreiber has enormous presence on screen. He manages to hold his own and in some scenes, upstage (in a good way) both Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. These are heavyweight co-stars. In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Schreiber plays more animal than man and the fact that he can be convincing as a dehumanised beast and a loving brother force fed the desire for violent revenge, is a testament to his skill.

On the second viewing, there are several aspects of the film that stand out even more starkly. The killing of the German captive is even more powerful. The Danish blonde beauty from High Fidelity, Iben Hjejle, electrifies the screen with the simple words "My son…" "Fifteen years old," and "blue eyes," – Jesus, you almost want to join in beating this poor German bastard to death and beyond. The supporting cast, almost to a fault, invest their small moments as large and memorable presences. I have to nod at Jodhi May's Tamara having to admit her pregnancy when it was too far gone to hide. Great actors can do that thing – make you care in mere seconds of screen time. Her revelation and breakdown reminded me strongly of Kim Hunter's close up at the start of the Archers' masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death – an emotional sucker punch which floors your before you know what the hell's happening. In May's case, as Zwick points out with some respect, she nailed it on the first take.

I was touched at the cinema and deeply moved at home. Isn't it extraordinary that some movies have such different effects depending where you see them? What a glorious art form, one that can celebrate the bravery of those long gone and illuminate a part of history that we cannot afford to forget.

sound and vision

Defiance's visual palette is completely story-serving, seasonal and emotionally provocative. The rich, almost de-saturated, cinematography looks 'real'. There is very little grain despite the fact that (a) it was shot 1.85:1 to gain two stops of light over shooting 2.35:1 (shooting in forests is not easy) and (b), the stock was often pushed a further two stops in the laboratory. It just shows how good a recording medium film is, in this case, 35mm Kodak celluloid.

The Dolby Digital surround sound is crystal clear and the overall sound design is extremely satisfying. You are enveloped by the sound that in real life you would be enveloped by (rain, thunder) while the dialogue is clean and centralised. Gun shots whiz by you hitting the rear speakers with a satisfying and duck-inducing 'kapow'. The overall ambition of the soundtrack is excellently realised. Newton-Howard's score is well integrated but never over-sentimental.

extra features

Trailer (2' 04")

Great sound design pushes this trailer to the fore but again it betrays conventional Hollywood marketing wisdom. To sell this film it has to be seen as an action adventure starring James Bond. A pity but understandable.

Defiance: Return to the Forest  (26' 04")

A neat and taut documentary on the historical fact and the making of the film, that, in a small way, apes the experience of those in the crisis of 1941-42. It's odd to hear stories from the crew likening their experience to those of the Jews in the forest. They may have gleaned a taste of the real feeling but the reality of surviving day to day is beyond anyone living in this day and age in the comfort zones of western civilisation. But as I mentioned in the cinema review, it's so important to know how others lived, how others paved the way for the lifestyle we all enjoy without thinking. We are the comfort generation. It's such a good idea to understand that this comfort comes at a price, a price we didn't pay. We should salute those who did.


Commentary by Director Edward Zwick

If ever there was a commentary that upped the appreciation of the movie two hundred percent then this is it. I liked the film in the cinema. I began to love it on DVD. Earnestness is not often a cinematic quality that fosters appreciation but Zwick manages it. Here is a director who cares and I cannot stress how important that is to my appreciation of a movie.

Zwick's commentary is measured and well presented. He's obviously prepared well for his time at the microphone and the DVD benefits enormously from his efforts. He found out the heroes of the film (remember, real people, true story) were known as 'blocks of wood', the last characters anyone would expect to lead a defiant camp of survival. But lead them they did. Some highlights of the points made by Zwick in the commentary...

His stars were fraternal, competitive and formed a jocular relationship; Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell and Daniel Craig at the height of their powers.

"Four Jews in a room, you have sixteen opinions."

"Our revenge is to live..." a line made up by Zwick, a hinge that gave resonance to the philosophy of the Jews' survival. A literal "Fuck you," to the Nazis.

"The geese make appearances at certain times in the movie... they're not credited though." Zwick's humour is drier that a Ritz cracker.

Composer, James Newton Howard only recently found out he was Jewish. This was a movie that really hammered home an appreciation of his own ancestry.

"Career killer..." whispered to the director as Daniel Craig dances at the woodland wedding. Perhaps Craig doesn't rate himself as a dancer. As a credible actor, he excels.

Schreiber learned some Russian basics in order to deliver his lines with some veracity.

Out for medicine, the attack on the Nazi pharmacy was shot at the time at six frames a second. That's commitment. There's no 'fixing in post production' once you commit. Kudos.

"The editor authors them as much as I do..." Zwick talks about his career spanning collaboration with friend and editor Steven Rosenblum. It's very rewarding to hear a director's respect for the editor (but then I'm biased having been both roles sometimes simultaneously).

summary

If possible, I enjoyed Defiance more the second and third time around. Zwick is a craftsman, a consummate film-maker very much supporting the old school rules which I mean as a profound compliment. It's the first Hollywood movie in quite a while that doesn't feel like one. It feels very much better. If you want a solid, superbly acted and humbling movie to make you feel more human and appreciate what hell people before you went through, then Defiance is it.

Defiance

USA 2008
131 mins
director
Edward Zwick
starring
Daniel Craig
Liev Schreiber
Jamie Bell
Alexa Davalos
George MacKay
Allan Corduner

DVD details
Region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
Audio descriptive track
languages
English / German / Russian
subtitles
English
extras
Trailer
Defiance: Return to the Forest featurette
Director's commentary
none
distributor
Momentum
release date
18 May 2009
review posted
12 May 2009