It’s 1941 and tens of thousands of Jewish people are being hunted in Eastern Europe—but three brothers are determined to take control of their destiny. Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Live Schreiber) and Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell) escape into the Belarussian forest surrounding their community after watching the horrific murders of their parents, extended family and friends by invading Nazi troops.
At first, the three siblings are focused on their own survival. Yet Tuvia is determined to help others and brings additional refugees into their midst. After Asael goes on a short expedition, he also returns with more men, women and children. Eventually the strays number into the hundreds and so do the stresses from the ever-increasing need to protect and feed these people. Zus is especially concerned and repeatedly voices his displeasure over his older brother’s overtly charitable attitude.
As winter approaches, the destitute souls build shelters and select a few individuals to go on food foraging missions. However, with the burgeoning population and Hitler’s army closing in, any hope of staying put for the coldest season is dashed and the settlers are forced to become nomads again. Still, Tuvia remains determined to lead his rag-tag group and live by his priority of protecting Jews as opposed to hunting Nazis—a view not shared by Zus who instead joins with the local Russian resistance fighters.
Based on true historical events surrounding this overlooked band of brothers and their self-named Bielski Otriad (or partisan detachment), this gripping film delivers a literally chilling view of what these people endured as they attempted to live as well as possible in makeshift camps amongst the dense trees. It shows the siblings as the heroes they were, but not without faults or emotions that sometimes created discord and contempt between them.
Dealing with topics surrounding the cruelties these survivors faced, this movie contains some strong language and graphic depictions of people being shot and physically abused. Nazi soldiers are seen rounding up women and children like cattle—then in another scene a long ditch filled with corpses is shown.
Within the camp, there is talk of choosing a “forest wife” or “forest husband” between people who may or may not already be married (in truth there was no way to determine if one’s spouse was still alive, and the sad reality was many had perished). Sexual content is minimal, with only one couple seen kissing and waking up together the next morning. There is also talk of a woman who was raped by a Nazi soldier, but details are not explicit.
Wanting to illustrate the fact that not all Jews were victims of Hitler’s rage, the filmmakers succeed at showing how attitudes of determination and defiance allowed many to weather the storm. While this serious material is unsuitable for children, the examples of these brave defenders may be appreciated by older teens and adults. Tuvia is especially noteworthy because of his willingness to put his own life at risk to save others.