"Defiance" is not your typical Holocaust movie, and not just because the reigning James Bond plays the hero. It's the fact-based story of the Bielski brothers, who organized a Jewish partisan unit in the Belorussian forests to fight the Germans and their collaborators during World War II and rescue their fellow Jews. By war's end, they had saved 1,200 people from certain death.
"Defiance" departs from Hollywood dramatizations such as "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist," which portrays Jews as unwitting victims doomed to a horrible fate in Hitler's gas chambers. If they survived, it was only by luck, circumstance or the intervention of gentile saviors like Oskar Schindler. Anyone who fought back, including the Jews behind the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion dramatized in the 2001 TV movie "Uprising" or the Auschwitz prisoner revolt depicted in "The Grey Zone," did so valiantly but in vain. "Defiance," according to director Edward Zwick, underscores that there really were Jewish partisans, "something for the world to look at now and say, 'It did happen.'"
The story did not, however, have an easy road to the screen. Zwick ("Blood Diamond," "Glory," "The Last Samurai") and his writing partner Clayton Frohman became aware of the Bielski brothers' history in 1995, when they read the obituary of Zus Bielski, played by Liev Schreiber in the film. That led them to read Nechama Tec's book "Defiance" and do extensive research in the archives at the Shoah Foundation, Simon Wiesenthal Foundation and the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation.
Condensing the event-filled saga of the partisans' three years in the forest into a coherent screenplay was a challenge that required numerous drafts. Several studios became attached and unattached, and the project lost steam. "We went off to do other things," notes Zwick, who spent two years each on "The Last Samurai" and "Blood Diamond." "But we periodically went back to it."
Then, on a ski vacation in Colorado, Zwick was alone in the snow at dusk when a binding on his boot broke. "I thought, 'I'm in the middle of nowhere. How would I survive?' It rekindled this appetite for the story, and we rededicated ourselves to it at that moment."
Shot independently with European financing, the Paramount Vantage-distributed movie was made for roughly $30 million. "We all had to take a quarter of our usual salaries," says Zwick The pay cut didn't deter Craig, Schreiber, Jamie Bell or the other actors from signing on, nor did the daunting prospect of playing real people or shooting in winter in the wilds of Lithuania, as we'll detail in the following sections.
Recreating World War II History
Before they were cast as Tuvia, Zus and Asael Bielski, actors Craig, Schreiber and Bell knew nothing of the history surrounding their partisan characters. Surprised and inspired by the story of survival under extreme circumstances, Craig was drawn to the role of Tuvia Bielski, the reluctant leader he describes as "a fascinating character full of contradictions and moral ambiguity." Tuvia and his brothers were far from white knights. In fact, they were brawling tough guys with a penchant for trouble and petty crime. "These were hard, uneducated men," notes Craig.
"The Nazis spoke the language of violence and terrorism, and these were people who understood and could reply," adds Schreiber, whose character Zus is a hotheaded loose cannon more motivated by retaliation and revenge than rescuing other Jews, which becomes a source of conflict between him and Tuvia,
Schreiber, who is Jewish and has acted in ("Jakob the Liar") and written/directed ("Everything is Illuminated") Holocaust-themed projects before, hesitated to accept the role but changed his mind after he read the Tec and Duffy books and Zwick convinced him. Required to speak Russian in several scenes, he hired a linguistics coach three months before the shoot. "I'm not conversational, but I can write and read in Cyrillic," he says.
Playing a real person was a responsibility Schreiber did not take lightly, especially when several Bielski children and grandchildren visited the set. "I was afraid initially that my characterization of Zus was something they wouldn't be proud of. I didn't want anyone looking over my shoulder saying 'Hey, that's not nice.' But when I spoke with them after, they loved it and said it meant a lot to them to see their father portrayed that way."
Alexa Davalos found it similarly daunting to play Lilka, who becomes Tuvia's wife. "Her grandchildren will see this," she acknowledges. "'The goal was to do her justice." While unaware of the story beforehand, Davalos felt an instant connection to it, especially after arriving on location. "My father is Jewish and I have great-great-grandparents who were from Lithuania," she explains. "To be there and realize my family had been there and escaped" before the war, "It was a really moving experience for me to be part of telling this story."
According to Zwick, several elderly members of the surviving Jewish community in Lithuania appear as extras in the film alongside professional Lithuanian actors. "A theater director who was bi-lingual became a liaison for me," he notes.
The production spent three months in the fall and early winter of 2007 in the forest about an hour's drive from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital that served as the company's home base, and the experience gave the cast and crew a very real idea of the conditions endured by the partisans.
Into the Woods for the Cast of "Defiance"
Lithuania was chosen as a stand-in for Belarus -- a dictatorship not hospitable to American moviemakers -- for financial, logistical and practical reasons. "The rivers and swamps are the same, the Eastern European faces are right. The forest is close to Vilnius, which could support a film crew," explains Zwick. Each day before dawn, the company drove to location, where September frost turned to deep snow by October and sunlight became increasingly scarce, requiring extra-fast lenses to ensure proper exposure.
"The forest was cold and wet, and the trailers were far away, so we didn't go back there for lunch. The food was bad and the portions were small, but everyone was forced to be together in this little community and that replicated the experience we were trying to dramatize," notes the director, convinced that this ironic synchronicity helped the movie.
Nevertheless, he had to be prepared for contingencies. "We had to be very flexible. We built our little interiors on the set, so when it was pissing rain we'd move into the bunkers and shoot there." Sometimes the rain or snow wasn't heavy enough, "so we'd make more and add it to fill in."
"It was cold, but I felt like we had no right to complain. We got to go home at night," points out Davalos, who kept in mind that "at the end of the day, this is filmmaking. Death isn't around the corner all the time."
Reality did hit home, however, in the form of illness and injury. "We all got sick at times because we were in this cold, damp, horrible place, but nobody stopped working," notes Zwick. Liev Schreiber, who'd sprained his ankle while training for the movie, was afraid he wouldn't be able to walk. "I did physical therapy almost the entire movie," he says.
Navigating uneven terrain in period boots while running with weapons took its toll on him and others. "My back went out after a week," says Jamie Bell. George MacKay, who plays younger brother Aron Bielski, was injured before he got to the set. "He was in a traffic accident on the way to the airport in London and arrived with a gigantic shiner," reports Clayton Frohman. "It required a bit of rewriting to explain how he got that way."
Fact vs. Fiction in "Defiance"
For Zwick, no stranger to historical drama, it was essential that "Defiance" be true to the period in terms of scenic design, costumes, and props, including authentic weapons. "Our wardrobe designer Jenny Beavan found pieces in Poland that were the real thing, and then she'd make doubles and triples," the director notes. The bunkers, called zemylankas, were built according to actual plans, from hand-hewn logs. "That was really important to us, that the scale be real," he says.
But when it came to the script, dramatic license had to be taken to expedite and streamline the sprawling story. That meant "finding the signposts of the story" to include, explains Zwick. "They lost their wives, they found other wives. They were attacked by the Germans. They had to move from place to place. Tuvia ended up killing two members of his own Otriad. But they did more things than we could dramatize."
"The events are pretty accurate to what happened over a four-year period and we condensed salient points so the story's told within a year," adds Craig. While the partisans are seen moving their camp only once, it actually happened several times. And although it appears that the brothers first met their wives in the forest, Zus and Asael knew the women before then. Lilka, in fact, was a teenager with a crush on Tuvia when he was married to her stepmother's sister Sonia, his second wife who was murdered by the Nazis.
Other liberties were taken with regard to the characterizations of the Bielskis themselves. Besides the three brothers focused on in "Defiance" and their youngest brother Aron, there were eight more Bielski siblings, some of whom were killed or had fled Europe earlier. The movie switches the birth order of Zus and Asael Bielski, the latter in actuality not as young as he is portrayed by Bell, the 22-year-old English actor known for his roles in "Billy Elliot," "King Kong" and "Flags of Our Fathers."
"In reality, he was 30 years old and formed the resistance. He was the first to bear arms, and then Tuvia took control. He was Tuvia's second in command," says Bell of Asael, who was drafted into the Russian Army and was killed seven months after leaving the forest. He never met the daughter he had with Haya, who later moved to Palestine. Tuvia, Zus, and their wives, and Aron, and the three brothers fought in the 1948 war of independence that created the state of Israel. They worked manual jobs there and eventually relocated to Brooklyn, New York, where Zus ran a trucking and taxi company and Tuvia drove a delivery truck. He died in 1987.
Aron, now in his 80s and known as Aron Bell, relocated to Florida and made headlines in 2007 for allegedly swindling an elderly neighbor out of $250,000. The case is pending.
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More Great Links
- Ed Zwick, Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Alexa Davalos, Jamie Bell interviewed December 7, 2008
- "Defiance" by Nechama Tec (it has been reissued with Daniel Craig on the cover and a foreword by Zwick)
- "The Bielski Brothers" by Peter Duffy
- "The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods," 2006 History Channel documentary