Following archival footage, always more shocking for its matter of fact depiction, we segue into the movie itself. West Belarus 1941, Nazi troops are rounding up and killing Jews including the parents, wives and children of the Bielski brothers.
Largely based on a true story from the book written after the brothers death, by Nechama Tec the film follows a rare story of hope in the bleak genocide of Jews within eastern Europe.
Initially fleeing to the Lipiczanska forest, the three brothers, Tuvia, Zus and Arael recover and then plot their revenge.
Following an effective scene where Tuvia Bileski kills the Police Captain and his sons, who were responsible for the death of his parents, it becomes obvious, at least to Tuvia, that revenge will not be enough. Perhaps the only way to fight back is to survive.
Everytime the group venture out to scavenge for food, they return not only with supplies and weapons but more mouths to feed, as the community in the woods continues to grow.
Tuvia (Craig) becomes the defacto leader of the group, almost certainly reluctantly bearing in mind his desire not to waylay the group with the old and sick.
Whilst in the woods, a renegade band of Russian soldiers are encountered and the more hotheaded brother (Zus), seeking the desire to kill more Germans, leaves the community and takes more direct action. Despite being fearless and fighting side by side he eventually realises that even here, anti-semitism still exists and he can never be treated as an equal.
The obvious repurcussions of assisting Jews at this time is shown in after effect but perhaps for a movie could have been shown more dramatically in real time. To do anything to assist, would have labelled a person a “Jew lover” and would have earned immediate execution, yet we get little on screen representation of the sheer terror this would invoke.
The SS relied upon fear to “inspire” others to perform their own dirty work and instead of ratcheting the tension, this is a movie after all, it is almost as if Edward Zwick (Directing) is keen to return to the safety of the forest at every opportunity. Zwick seems somewhat at odds with attempting to tell a story that is worthy but ultimately not cinematic, against including scenes and action that will ensure audience attention but are not part of the “real” story.
Taking a break from Bond, Craig is steely eyed, determined and speaks in both heavily accented English and Belarusian. After the initial surpise, this works quite seamlessly and adds to the feeling of authenticity. Schreiber and Bell both show real committment to the roles and are believable as siblings with all the love and rivalries this entails. Later, a gentle love interest is introduced for each brother as the community take “Forest Wives”. Quite how this squares with the rule that no children are produced is not covered, despite the later decision Tuvia has to make.
The women in the story are not featured prominently but Lilka (Alexa Davalos ) who Tuvia went on to marry and live the rest of his life, does get some scenes to shine. The tentative love story between Asael (Bell) and Chaya (Wasikowska, soon to be seen in Tim Burtons “Alice in Wonderland) does provide the only light relief but even that seems at odds with the overall feel of the movie.
Following a mass breakout from the Ghetto the group swells to over 1000 and petty jealousies and rival leadership bids then become evident. Tuvia realises that his desire to play fair with allocation of duties and food will only be effective if he is also ruthless when required. Despite initally stating he must not act “like them” there is a slow realisation that on occasion that is exactly what he must become.
The scene where the captured SS man is beaten to death as a necessary outlet for peoples frustration and hatred, is a good example.
The action scenes are well done, notably the transmitter raid, albeit appearing somewhat staged, somewhat surprisingly bearing in mind Zwicks excellent work elsewhere.
The look is suitably grungy and dirty and there is little relief, as is appropriate, from the constant feeling of being hunted and having nowhere to go. This somewhat undercut by the final battle scene, where one realises that help must arrive. Somehow this tiny ray of hope is at odds with the tragedy all around and that to focus on this story somehow allows hope where at the time, most displays of humanity had been extinguished.
It is difficult to pin down what the movie lacks as the acting is fine, costume and location are also well used and with a score remiscent of Schindlers list in places, this should be a moving retelling of a story well worth recounting.
Despite the fact that the brothers actually saved more people than Schindler himself, emerging from the woods two years later with over 1000 survivors, this a largely unknown story. At least now it can see the light of day although it is a pity that movie itself did not quite “work”, therefore preventing a larger audience knowing of the brothers bravery and leadership.
A curiously uninvolving film despite the subject matter.
Falling betwen a war, love and historical movie this retelling comes up just short in each category.
Not a bad film but somehow it just does not fit together and leaves a slightly guilty feeling that one should really feel more for the moving story the film depicts.