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 HistoryNet.com about the story, the film and its impact on history.
HistoryNet.com: 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?
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?
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.