Defiance - Edward Zwick Interview | HistoryNet MENU

Defiance – Edward Zwick Interview

By Jay Wertz
1/13/2009 • Interviews, Military History

Daniel Craig as "Tuvia Bielski" and Alexa Davalos as "Lilka" star in the Paramount Vantage film "Defiance." Photo by Karen Ballard.
Daniel Craig as "Tuvia Bielski" and Alexa Davalos as "Lilka" star in the Paramount Vantage film "Defiance." Photo by Karen Ballard.

What was remarkable about the defiance was not just that they took revenge, but rather that they preserved the life of a community.

Defiance (Paramount Vantage), a new World War II film starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, is based on the true story of the Bielski brothers, smugglers who started a refugee community in the Belarusian forest of Poland in 1941 after their village was sacked by Polish police working for the Nazis. Incredibly, the true story of the four Jewish siblings and their following—reported to have numbered as high as 1,500 at times—was virtually unknown until the oldest brother, Tuvia Bielski, dictated the tale shortly before his death in 1973. Nechama Tec then wrote a scholarly study of the community that went virtually unnoticed for many years, but not to Oscar-winning producer/director Edward Zwick and his Bedford Falls production company.

Using Tec’s thesis as a base, Zwick and Clayton Frohman wrote a feature screenplay about this unusual piece of World War II history. Despite Zwick’s successful and award-winning track record (Glory and Blood Diamonds, among others), the project was turned down by every major Hollywood studio. Undeterred, Zwick and company went to Europe to obtain financing and also sent a script to James Bond–star Daniel Craig, who enthusiastically agreed to portray Tuvia Bielski. Craig and the rest of the cast, including Schreiber, Joshua Bell (as Asael Bielski) and beauty Alexa Davalos, as well as key crew members from Zwick’s Blood Diamonds, worked for reduced pay in frigid locations in Lithuania to complete the principal photography. On set were descendants of the Bielski brothers (the two eldest, Tuvia and Zus founded a successful taxi company in New York after the war). Zwick found the descendants to be inspiring in developing the characterizations of their fathers and uncles. A few survivors of the actual World War II ordeal spontaneously visited the set as filming progressed.

The film opens nationwide on January 16, 2009. It was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Original Score (James Newton Howard). Prior to the film’s national release Edward Zwick answered questions posed by about the story, the film and its impact on history. There has been very little cinematic treatment of the resistance movement, and especially Jewish resistance, to the Axis powers in World War II. Why is it important to bring this story to the screen now?

Director Edward Zwick on the set of "Defiance." Photo by Karen Ballard.
Director Edward Zwick on the set of "Defiance." Photo by Karen Ballard.
Edward Zwick: I think it’s been important to bring this story to the screen probably for fifty years. I think now happens to be the time we managed to do it. I think there’s been an extraordinary, inevitable and very necessary emphasis on six million who died, but I think there’s some historical or even some iconic redress to be made about those who survived, and how they survived. And I think there’s a false impression that Jews only went willingly and that the idea was that there was no impulse to resist when in fact every time there was an opportunity it was taken. This is one such time in which it was very successful.

HN: Based on a true story, the Bielski brothers developed a unique community that really began by accident and developed in stages. What aspects of this fascinating piece of history were most important to convey in the film?

EZ: Well, two things. One is that they were ordinary men. They were unsophisticated, and in no way prepared to lead—that they were reluctant heroes even. And the other is that what was remarkable about the defiance was not just that they took revenge, but rather that they preserved the life of a community and that they insisted that there be marriage, and family and school and celebration even in the midst of this horrible time. That was their triumph.

HN: The two elder brothers, Tuvia and Zus, are central to the film. How do their strengths, their faults and differences move the story along in the movie?

Liev Schreiber as "Zus Bielski" stars in "Defiance.  Photo by Karen Ballard.
Liev Schreiber as "Zus Bielski" stars in "Defiance. Photo by Karen Ballard.
EZ: In Nechama Tec’s book Defiance, she very clearly articulates the struggle between the impulse for revenge and the need to rescue. And those characteristics really were vested very centrally in the two brothers. So, the differences between them, I think, not only describe the sibling rivalry but also a philosophical difference in how to proceed and what one’s obligations might be in this situation.

HN: They took a varied group of refugees and they turned them into citizen soldiers in a relatively short period of time. How did you approach this aspect in the film?

EZ: These brothers were no strangers to violence, and they were comfortable in the woods. They became military leaders. They then made alliance with Russian partisans who were also extremely capable as military men. And the training was for both men and women, and that was unusual in its day and necessary. Women were taught to use weapons, to train, to ride horses. There was no question but that was the only way they were going to survive.

HN: As co-writer and director, your interpretation in the story introduced character conflicts and moral dilemmas. Which of these make the film a really effective drama and give the audience the best understanding of the situation these people faced?

EZ: I think that the issues of leadership for Tuvia are very central to the story. The idea that he, in order to enact discipline, is forced to do things that might be questionable, having to do with, at one point, allowing the group to kill a prisoner—at another point killing one of his own men. These are very controversial and very questionable decisions and yet necessary. And I think he pays a significant emotional price to have done them.

HN: In the film the forest, which is very beautifully photographed, is central. Could you say it almost becomes a character in the story?

EZ: I think so, very much. The cities were traps. No one could hide in the cities. But the forest is what sheltered them. The forest was their salvation. Traditionally, in literature and in history, the forest has been always the place where people go for refuge, to be changed; the lover, the outlaw, the bad man, the fool. The forest is that place of transformation. All the people who are there, they still to this day, talk about the beauty of the forest. The beauty of the natural world juxtaposed with the horror of the surrounding elements was very important to me to try to dramatize.

HN: In one sequence you interplay an ambush of a Nazi convoy by Zus and the Russian partisans with a wedding in the Bielski community in the forest. What’s the significance of this juxtaposition?

EZ: I think it was the fact that their defiance was to perpetuate the spirit of life, was not to let that be taken away from them. The contradictions of having something as jubilant and as life affirming as a wedding in the midst of the need to protect themselves violently was very much at the heart of the film.

HN: You shot the film in Lithuania. How were the production logistics there, especially in terms of armament and military vehicles?

EZ: There were certain things that were there, but the truth is most of that had to come from other places. It came from Germany, from the Czech Republic and a great deal of it from England. There is a filmmaking tradition in Lithuania, but it’s mostly of smaller-scale television. There have been movies that have started to come there now—I think we were the biggest production to have come in there so far. We brought department heads from all over the world and found their matches in some of the Lithuanian crew. Sometimes we were teaching and sometimes we were pleasantly surprised to see the level of sophistication that was already there.

HN: These people obviously endured incredible hardships; this is very evident in the film. It would appear that perhaps the actors, even you and the crew had to face some tough situations to get some of these scenes on celluloid. Is that true?

EZ: Well, we did. It was very cold and very wet. I don’t mean to overdramatize it—at the end of the day there was a hotel room waiting for us. And yet all day long, we were very cold, the actors were wearing costumes where their feet would freeze and their fingers would become numb and I think that’s something that they managed to use for their characterizations and their performances. It wasn’t pleasant, but I think it lent something very particular to the experience and that in some sense amplified their performances.

HN: Several of your important films, Glory, Blood Diamonds and Defiance among them, have characters who become unlikely or reluctant heroes in the midst of war or conflict. What is it about this theme that keeps drawing you back to it?

EZ: I guess it speaks to the human potential in all of us. I’m not interested in supermen, I’m interested in ordinary men.

HN: The film focuses primarily on the formations of the group and the challenges of the first winter of 1941–42, but their story continued. What happened to the Bielski community from then to the end of the war?

EZ: As the Russian partisans gained more dominion in the forest the pressure lessened somewhat. They joined the Russians in many more operations. They were able to gain some greater permanency although they had to keep moving their camp. At the end of the war, as the Germans were retreating, they stumbled upon the Bielski camp and killed several more.

HN: They were actually targeted specifically by Hitler—known and targeted by him when the rest of the Eastern Front started to crumble.

EZ: Yes. They sent two divisions, 20,000 men, into the forest to try to get them and they couldn’t.

HN: How do you feel about your success in bringing these great stories, these little-known stories, to the screen? Is this something that you see as a challenge in your career?

EZ: Just the fact about getting these movies made that I care about, as an opportunity to be an artist, but also to hold up the mirror to the world, is an extraordinary opportunity. It’s also a responsibility I’ve always felt, and I just hope that I’m able to keep doing it.

Editor’s note: Read a review of the movie Defiance by clicking here.

Jay Wertz is the author of three books: The Native American Experience, The Civil War Experience 1861-1865 and co-author of Smithsonian’s Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss. He has also been a columnist for Civil War Times Illustrated and has written for Aviation History. He is the producer-director-writer of the award-winning 13-part documentary series Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War for The Learning Channel and Time-Life Video. During his 33-year film and TV career in Hollywood he has worked on many historical projects. He lives in Montclair, California.

11 Responses to Defiance – Edward Zwick Interview

  1. euclidcreek says:

    And good luck to the brave Palestinian people. Peace.

  2. Curt Scott says:

    In his fine review of “Defiance,” Jay Wertz consistently misspells the word “guerrilla.” There’s also a sentence (on page 3 of his review) that reads “… both men and women are trained to shoot and everyone gets the same ratios.” I’m fairly certain that last word is supposed to be “rations.”
    Curt Scott
    Santa Clarita, California

  3. DE Tedooru says:

    What does “based upon” mean? Is it an historic renditon or is it more of the Holocaust Industry’s attempt to make us cheer Israel’s current “shooting fish [Palestinians] in a barrel [Gaza]”? THIS WOULD NOT BE AN ISSUE IF THE FILM HAD COME OUT EARLIER OR LATER– BAD TIMING.

    I can’t helpt thinking that the heroism of two– exagerated or properly portrayed– should have waited its film portayal so that people do not associate what the Nazis did in the Warsaw Ghetto with what Israel is doing in Gaza. Historical analogy is a two edged sword and often unfair to both sides of the analogy; especially when dramaticized as a movie, it gets confused with hasbara. A Holywoodian version of history can be like a fire cracker held in hand too long, creating more controversy than making points. But as one who was raised by my parents’ friends– Jewish survivors of a double Holocaust, Hitler’s and Stalin’s– all through my own refuge Westward, I think more to the point is how the incredible faith in God and goodness survived in my Jewish mentors. To their deaths in Israel, all protested Israel’s lebensraum policies when they crush innocent Palestinians with an “Iron Wall” to make room for non-existent immigrants. They could not accept doing onto others as was done onto them– but Holywood will never make a film about their exemplary lives of hope. I also fear that many will not see this film because they feel propaganda expoitation of the Holocaust is a sacrilege. Zionism can be outrageously racist, as when the rabbi at the funeral of Dr. Goldstein (who shot up the Jerusalem Mosque) said that one Jewish fingernail is worth a thousand Arab lives. Nevertheless, that to this day Jews continue to be pillars of Western culture is beyond dispute. I hope we can keep the Holocaust and Zionism as separate issues, especially given how little Zionists cared for the plight of the Jews fleeing the Holocaust (Tom Segev THE SEVENTH MILLION).


  4. Dennis says:

    A great great movie, about some brave , brave people. All good luck to the Jewish.

  5. DE Teodoru says:

    I guess this is a lick-it-and-love-it propaganda site, not one for looks at history varying in viewpoint. So this movie must be cheered or you must be an anti-Semite….Wow!

  6. bellskee says:

    The Defiance Movie-I am Zus’s son, served in the USMC and later the IDF (73 War), my brother IDF Paratrooper (1st Leb. War), my first born IDF Paratroopers (reserve); his brother is presently in the IDF Paratroopers.
    The Untold Bielski Story.
    Growing up they had to defend themselves and their business from the locals. They were always a family team, and also had many non Jewish friends. They developed a reputation before the War for many kilometers that “you shouldn’t mess with the Bielskis because you are sure to lose” a quote by Aron Bell Bielski. They were never petty criminals as referred to in the movie, although the police knew of them and their penchant for provoked violence. As the environment grew more hostile against Jews and the Bielskis in particular, the ante was raised and so was their response to it, ruthlessness and compassion. The Defiance movie did not show enemies’ heads being axed (see The History Channel, Jerusalem in the Woods). The Bielski Enemas in which enemies’ behinds were cleaned by grenades as each watched his fellow get blown up knowing that he will be next (The Bielski Partisans a documentary by Kumar 1996). Many unmentionable acts were done without remorse by Zus and others. In context envision what would you do if they killed your mother and father, your brothers, your wife and daughter? Between me and you if the Bielskis’ Defiance movie has any positive influence on Israeli gov’t a more assertive and permanent solution would already be in place both politically and militarily. Defiance was not intended to directly comment on Israeli policies it intended to show that all Jews are capable and obligated to live and be defiant to anyone who threatens our existence, anytime.

  7. Gregory Garduno says:

    As entertainment, I found “Defiance” to be an excellent film. Arguments as whether it has a message for the Middle East conflict of today I will leave to other posters. It is my belief that if we found ourselves in the same situation as the Bielski brothers and the other Jews, many of us would go into survival mode and do whatever is necessary. The invading Germans were not exactly shrinking violets when it came to committing atrocities. Just one more thing: the correct title of Zwick’s previous film is “Blood Diamond”-singular, not plural.

  8. JK55 says:

    A riveting film, absolutely hands-down powerful and excellently crafted. I watched it once thru 2 days in a row. And I certainly could totally identify with Tuvia finishing off the constable, even tho not an ideal solution (hesitant to use that last word here).

    At the same time, I was astonished at how many parallels there were between the film’s Tuvia (meaning possibly not the real Tuvia—I’ve not read the actual book the film was based on) and certain other (villainous) leaders: take for example the professor at the end hailing Tuvia as “sent by God” and “restoring my faith.” Where have we heard that before? Ah yes, that’s the way many of the Jews’ primary enemies in WW2 regarded their jumping-jack Mr. Mustachio. And what about the purging of the rebel Arkady? Remind you of Roehm & the Night of Long Knives? Then there’s the German scout who served as a scapegoat (again, entirely understandable, but a quick shot in the head would’ve been more just)—Hitler viewed the Jews as the enemies of The Reich, so they got the brunt of the Nazis’ wrath.

    Mr. Zwick, did you and your co-author realize the irony you built into your film? On the other hand, it confirms an age-old truism: ultimately no ethnic group is immune from evil, whether they’re the Chosen Ones by God or nothing more than the self-chosen “Herrenrasse.” Conversely, no one ethnic group’s suffering is more important than that of all the others.

  9. Adrienne (caos) SInclair says:

    This is one of the top 3 films on my list of all times, hands down, It gives us hope that life and sometime fighting can save many people in future generations, ths movie was based on a true story and the thousands of grandchildren who are alive because of the 1500 jewish people who were save gives us hope, that is al I can say it is true and astounding and perfomace by actors were not acting it flowed like this river, real and poignat and strong, Lashing apoligies for sleasywood for this should have scored best actor supporting and move,, I am not bragging but am an expert critic, the other the passion director Mel gibson was ignored, and grossed the top ten film religious or other wise and I dont know I cliked with an old movie with the Late Anthoy Quinn who actualy was my mothers neighbor, when he was young and his wife was having a baby shower long time ago the film was Zorba teh Greek, so if you want to see, history with hope no matter who you are, there is hope for all of us in these films on different levels,, blessings and Shalom

  10. […] note: In an interview with History Net, award-winning director and producer Edward Zwick talks about the making of Defiance and his […]

  11. Sebastian Grain says:

    Bullshit. The Bielski brothers were militarily incompetent and committed war crimes against poles. Nothing of that can be found in the interview. Disappointing.

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