When the Nazis overran the Bielski’s motherland, one million Jews were either deported to camps or dead. In truth, it’s miraculous the four brothers—stoic Tuvia, furious Zus (Liev Schreiber), tremulous Asael (Jamie Bell), and baby Aron (George MacKay)—survived when the local police (inspired by the Germans) shot everything alive on their farm from their parents to their sheep. “We may be hunted like animals, but we are not animals,” growls Tuvia, and the thrust of the beginning stretch of the film comes from his efforts to convince Zus that when it comes to sharing their food with other stragglers, their only choices are impracticality or inhumanity.
Everyone in Zwick and Clayton Frohman’s script speaks in Big Ideas. This isn’t a subtle film—few World War II pictures are—and the dialogue is mainly limited to proclamations, an endless supply of people barking “We must—-!” or “We must never—-!” Zwick’s intentions are good. He says that one of his main motivations behind the film was to correct the schoolbook image of Jewish victims passively succumbing to their fates. Yet, he handholds the audience as though fretful we might watch this unheralded tale of nobility and strength and somehow come out in favor of the Holocaust. The film is far more interesting when it cops to the complexity of the Bielskis’ struggle: Steal or starve. Be merciful or be targeted. Tuvia’s practical, but painful camp laws aren’t stretched until their moral fibers fray. His ban on pregnancy is tested, but only by a blameless mother-to-be who was raped by the Germans. Zwick is sharp enough to show Tuvia and his men making nasty choices—for example killing an Aryan mistress caught in crossfire, or beating to death a German soldier who begs to go home to his wife and children—but blood never sticks to their hands or their souls. As a result, it never sticks to ours and doesn’t thicken this handsome period piece into anything so dark and sour as a masterpiece.