"We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals. We have all chosen this - to live free, like human beings, for as long as we can. Each day of freedom is a victory. And if we die trying to live, at least we die like human beings." Tuvia Bielski, DEFIANCE
In the summer of 1944, the villagers and peasant folk of what is now Belarus came stumbling out of their homes, eyes wide with excitement as they marvelled at their liberators, the Red Army, whose heavy divisions now rattled through the countryside, rolling stubbornly west towards Germany. A few days later one particular group of villagers-who eked out an existence on the lip of the Naliboki Forest, just west of Minsk-came tumbling from their homes to marvel at yet another astonishing sight. And this, by all accounts, was even more startling. From the forest verge, walking slowly towards them, came a kilometre-long crocodile of people, a procession of more than a thousand Jews, who, for the past three years, had survived by hiding in the forest of wilderness.
'How have you survived?' asked a perplexed villager. 'Are you ghosts?' enquired another.
In some ways they were. During the course of Hitler's occupation, this community had moved as shadows, gliding through the hushed forests of Belarus, barely seen, their own lives in limbo as they hunted the invaders, recruiting their brethren from the nightmare of the ghettos. These were the men, women and children of the Bielski Otriad, a group of partisans formed in 1941 by Tuvia Bielski and his three brothers, a peasant family from the Belarusian village of Stankievich, who by the time of the Soviets' victorious advance, had rescued 1,200 of their people-more than Oskar Schindler-from death at the hands of the Third Reich.
At the War's end, the members of the Otriad began to rebuild their lives, Tuvia moving to America, where he worked as a cab driver in New York until his death in 1987. He was held in high esteem among the Jewish community in Brooklyn, where he lived, and yet his story is seldom heard. All this is set to change. Six years after Tuvia's death, Jewish sociologist Nechama Tec published the academic study Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, incorporating numerous first-hand accounts-including Tuvia's which sought to remind the world of the Bielskis' remarkable feat. And three years after its publication, Tec's book came to the attention of Zwick, the Oscar-winning director behind Legends Of The Fall. Glory, The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Edward Zwick, the acclaimed director of GLORY and BLOOD DIAMOND, brings this extraordinary, untold story to the screen as an intensely moving action-drama about the complicated nature of vengeance and salvation; the power of community; and the will to live when all hope seems lost.
Shot in Lithuania with a devoted international cast and crew headed by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber - the filmmakers painstakingly sought to recreate a story that is not only remarkable unto itself, but also an important new look at one of the cinematic myths of World War II. Just as Zwick previously revisited a hidden chapter of the Civil War and its African-American regiment in his Oscar-winning film GLORY, he now explores a stirring reality that has been all but ignored in the movies: the brave resistance of those who refused to go without a fight.
Says Zwick: "The popular iconography of the Holocaust has mostly been one of victimization. It's important to add complexity to that notion -- to understand that there is a difference between passivity and powerlessness, that the impulse to resist was always present. DEFIANCE is about those who managed to fight back, but it is also about the enduring conflict between the desire for revenge and the desire to save others. It's a story that compels us to ask ourselves: What would I have done in those circumstances? And in that way, I think, it becomes a deeply personal experience."
COMPRESSING YEARS OF FIGHTING, BUILDING AND SURVIVING INTO A TIGHTLY STRUCTURED SCREENPLAY
The process of writing DEFIANCE - taking the real life saga of the Bielski partisans and creating a film narrative - was lengthy and carefully considered. The script went through many iterations.
"Writing this movie was always an act of faith," says Clayton Frohman. "I never imagined we'd actually one day wind up in Vilnius, where my grandfather was born, making this movie with such an amazing cast. For me, it was the realization of a life-long dream."
One of the biggest challenges of bringing the story to life was finding a way to compress three years of harrowing struggle, sibling rivalry, and physical hardships into a two hour movie. Even paying heed to true events, Edward Zwick notes that he was never interested in presenting a documentary. "I've always seen it as a story about passionate people who manage to hold on to their humanity in the most dire circumstances," he says. "In addition to investing in the characters, I want audiences to be on the edge of their seats, a feeling that only a movie can create. And remarkably enough, in order to do that, we didn't have to bowdlerize the history, because the excitement was all there in the real story."
Still, Zwick did not want to whitewash the violence committed by the partisans in the name of survival. "The Bielskis weren't saints," Zwick states. "They were flawed heroes, which is what makes them so real and so fascinating. Yet I think they also found within themselves something unexpected and magnificent. As their community grew they were forced to become real leaders, to take on huge responsibility and discover their finest selves. They faced any number of difficult moral dilemmas that the movie seeks to dramatize: Does one have to become a monster to fight monsters? Does one have to sacrifice his humanity to save humanity?"
Other questions faced in the forest were of a more intimate nature. "Even in the most trying of times, especially in wartime, love and longing are never absent. People who have lost everything are in even greater need of comfort and companionship," says Zwick. Those who have lost loved ones look to each other in their need. The concept of the "forest wife" and "forest husband" took hold - relationships were sometimes forged as much out of practicality as romance.
"Many of them didn't know where their former spouses were, or if they were even alive. It was only human that they would reach out to one another," says Zwick. "We glimpse this in the relationship between Zus and Bella."
For Zwick, capturing the visceral reality of what it might have been like to be hunted was key to his vision for the film. "I felt it was important for the audience to understand what it might be like to be in that situation themselves," he says, "for people accustomed to civility to live rough and dirty, to endure cold and hunger, to be constantly afraid and remain hidden, and thus to discover their more primitive and essential natures."
The fact that, under such pressure, so many rose to the occasion and discovered unexpected bravery and compassion, is also underscored in the screenplay. Indeed, Zwick thinks the most important character in the movie isn't a singular individual, but rather the community they create together. "Tuvia, Zus and Asael each have their own strength but the group is what becomes invincible," says Zwick. "The community itself is a character that begins to express its own will and identity; a fascinating dynamic develops between the expression of an individual's needs and the group's survival as a whole."
Producer Pieter Jan Brugge, an Academy Award® nominee (for THE INSIDER) who earlier worked with Zwick on GLORY, sees an allusion to American Westerns in that theme. "There's something in the story that has elements of the old John Ford films - this idea that you're not just a rugged, isolated individual but that it's important where you stand in relationship to others and your community," he comments. "I think it's a story that continues to have great resonance in this day and time because we all want to be part of something bigger than who we are alone."
Brugge was impressed with Zwick and Frohman's screenplay. "It was an exhilarating read that had elements of great scale and scope, but at the same time, real emotional intimacy. It had a richness that you rarely find," he says. He also sensed a kinship between Zwick and the material in a way he had not witnessed before. "I think this is Ed's most personal film in many ways," says Brugge. "And that thrilled me, because I feel that you can best do your job as a producer only when the director has great clarity of vision, and feels a personal necessity to tell the world this particular story. Ed brought both to DEFIANCE."
FORGING BROTHERHOOD THROUGH CASTING
The Bielski were, in many ways, typical as brothers - loving yet competitive, loyal yet fiercely individualistic. Zwick hoped for just such a dynamic to emerge between the actors he had cast.
"Daniel and Liev developed a lovely, bantering, playfully competitive relationship off-screen that brought unexpected humor and feeling to their scenes together," he notes. "Daniel and Jamie became very close as well, with Daniel taking on an almost mentoring, older brother role, both on and off-camera."
The film really took shape once Craig agreed to play the role of Tuvia, the brother who took on the mantle of leadership in the forest community. Craig is best known for his acclaimed, gritty portrayal of 007 in the latest incarnations of the beloved Bond franchise, but he has also given a wide range of intense, critically-acclaimed performances in such films as LAYER CAKE and MUNICH. It was the breadth of his abilities that attracted Zwick.
Comments the director: "Daniel is at heart a very modest man, yet also quite forceful. He's wonderfully self-deprecating and at the same time he projects a real sense of power. He's a very soulful person, but he doesn't reveal himself right away. He's also physically imposing, and the one thing everyone who knew him said about Tuvia Bielski is that he was strong and charismatic. Most of all I know that, although Daniel is now a big movie star, he will always be a brave and searching actor."
It was Craig's ability to create a man of action who simultaneously questions those actions. As Tuvia's son, Mickey, says of his father: "He was a man of contradictions. I always saw him as a man who had both terrible strength and great goodness living side by side. They were equally important parts of him as a man, and sometimes I felt those qualities to be at war with each other."
Craig sees Tuvia as a kind of accidental hero - a man pushed to become something larger by the most dire of circumstances - but notes that he also sees him as representative of many others who did not survive. "I was fascinated right away by Tuvia's ability to take action, and by his willingness to take enormous risks for others," he says, "but I also think he was not that different than many others in that time. It's just that he was successful and lived, so we can now tell his story."
Still, Craig was moved by Tuvia's choice to save others rather than seek revenge. "To make that decision. To say, '…okay, something needs to be done here, and I'm the person to do it' -- to me, that is mind-blowing. He obviously had something in him that was so vital and full of life and so affected by the tragedy around him that he had to find a way to take control of the situation," he says, "and that was the greatest challenge in portraying him."
He continues: "For Tuvia, I think the motivation becomes about more than just fighting back, but about creating a family and a community. This became their reason to survive. To me, that's the really big theme of the film."
Craig's admiration for Tuvia is clear, yet his portrait is shaded with the character's underlying conflicts and flaws, including his tendency to rule with an iron fist. "He was really a dictator in the camp," notes Craig, "yet his rules and regulations may have helped them all stay alive, so it raises a lot of interesting questions. He dealt with things very aggressively and some of what he did is not defensible, yet perhaps understandable in the context of all that was happening."
Yet Tuvia also harbors a hidden, tender side that is only revealed in his relationship with his "forest wife," Lilka, with whom he builds a fragile trust. "Tuvia is certainly not looking for love," explains Craig of his character's initial reticence towards real intimacy, "so that when Lilka comes into his life it really surprises him…which I think makes it even more romantic in a way. In the true story, Tuvia and Lilka stayed together for the rest of their lives, which is quite amazing. I think in that situation your partner becomes more than just your friend or your lover - they become someone who keeps you human and who boosts your survival instincts to a higher level."
If Tuvia's strength and steadiness made him a natural leader, his younger brother Zus' charisma and volatility was perfectly suited to a man of action. Zwick always saw Zus' journey from fury to commitment as one of the central themes of DEFIANCE. "Sometimes people find their truest selves in the worst of circumstances, and Zus is someone for whom this horrible moment becomes liberating," says the director. "Instead of living the rest of his life with this sense of hidden injury and rage, he finds a way to express himself in violence - and Liev gives that journey an extraordinary depth of emotion."
Schreiber is both a Tony Award-winning theater actor and a versatile screen star whose roles include from LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA to the forthcoming X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE.
He approached the character by exploring the stark contrasts between Zus and Tuvia. "Zus is someone who is always driven to fight," says the actor. "He starts out believing that the most important thing is to make someone pay for the loss of his family and for all that he has endured."
Ultimately, Zus' desire to fight takes him away from his family and broadens the film's story to include the Russian partisan camps. But there, although he gives his chance to seek vengeance against the Germans, Zus encounters unexpected prejudice. "It's a very alienating time for Zus," says Schreiber. "He slowly begins to realize that home is where his brothers are, and that he belongs with his family."
With his sometimes uncontrollable passion and an impulse toward violence, Zus can be a divisive figure, but Schreiber warns against judging the character from the safe perspective of our modern lives. "There is no morality in war," he notes, "and that's what all the partisans were up against. It's what Zus is up against, and what Tuvia's up against, and certainly what the Allies were up against. The horror and the grief that these people endured to survive will always be as much a part of the story as their heroism."
The intensity of the role was often offset by the camaraderie he and the rest of the cast developed off-screen. "Daniel took a very playful approach, and we rehearsed a lot with each other," he recalls. "And that's the best part, when you have an ensemble of people with whom you can bounce ideas around. Zus' character grew as we went along, and that was a real pleasure."
Starring as the third Bielski brother - Asael -- is Jamie Bell, the young English actor who burst onto the scene with his tour de force performance in the title role of BILLY ELLIOT, and more recently gave two very different performances in the quirky indie, MR. FOE, and the sci-fi thriller, JUMPER. Bell loved the realism of the sibling relationships in DEFIANCE. "Tuvia and Zus are always butting heads and Asael is perpetually in the middle, which is the way it often is in families," he explains. "I liked that Asael is very focused on uniting the family, on loyalty, and that he grows from being the man in the middle into becoming his own person."
Asael also helps Tuvia accept the burden of his responsibility to the group. "Asael idolizes his brother, as many younger brothers do, yet when he sees him faltering he has the strength to go to him and say 'You need to deal with this. You need to get on the straight and narrow, and become the person who you said you were going to be."
Bell notes that their performances were helped by an almost instant chemistry. "It was just fascinating how quickly Liev, Daniel and I developed this sibling dynamic. Even just hanging out on the set, Daniel had this kind of older brother thing going on with me. And it was easy for me to look up to him in that way, as well. He's a fantastic actor, seemingly unfazed by his rise to fame, and he's a guy at the peak of his career who's handling it all brilliantly. What's more, he's in love with filmmaking."
Like his brothers, Asael also unexpectedly finds a 'forest wife.' "One of the interesting things about Asael is that he starts out very naïve and quite uncomfortable about women - so his progression to marriage is incredibly sweet," says Bell.
Bell enjoyed being part of an ensemble that seemed to grow closer every day on the set, not just among the main cast but also with the Lithuanians who played the smaller roles or served as extras. "Everyone was so dedicated and worked so incredibly hard," he says, "it gave you the feeling of being one of the real Bielski Otriad."
And yet, Bell notes, there was a very major difference: "Every night I'd go back to my hotel room and a hot bath and think to myself, these people never had the chance to do anything like that. They were there day in day out, in the freezing cold and the damp, in the deep snow and the mud. They were there for the duration with every moment focused on survival. That certainly put any hardships we might have experienced while shooting into real perspective."
A SURVIVOR'S STORY
Throughout the production, Director Edward Zwick maintained a close relationship with the extended Bielski family, especially the first-generation children of Tuvia and Zus, for whom the movie became a chance to preserve their parents' legacy for future generations.
For the Bielski family, it had been a life-long struggle to have their parents' story told. They recall that, growing up, they had had to dig tenaciously to get even tidbits of what happened before they were born. Mickey Bielski, Tuvia's oldest son, remembers that it was other people who first mentioned the incredible secrets in his father's past. "I actually heard other survivors talking about it before he did. Out of the blue, someone would say something dramatic, such as 'Your father saved my life,' he says. "I had no idea what they were talking about, but it certainly piqued my interest."
Like many Holocaust survivors, Tuvia Bielski found it difficult to talk about the past and focused instead on creating a better future for his children in America. Says Mickey: "I think my parents just wanted to be normal citizens taking care of their family, but we all began to realize they had a very special story."
It was the children who first encouraged their parents to open up more, though it was never easy. Another of Tuvia's sons, Robert Bielski recalls: "My father would get very emotional when he told stories from that time, and the older he got, the more emotional he became. So it was very hard to get the complete stories out of him. He would start off strong, but then it would get to him and he couldn't go on."
Still, the children's interest began to make headway. "Once they realized how important it was for us to know they began to tell the story and we were in awe. And I still am," says Ruth Bielski, Tuvia's daughter.
Zvi Bielski, one of Zus' sons, notes that his father was a bit more forthcoming than his more taciturn elder. "He always emphasized how they took their revenge on the Nazis. He was very proud of that - but he was most proud of all the people they saved," he recalls. "The real legacy of the Bielskis is that so many people are here on earth who might never have lived."
For the Bielski children, the idea of a movie was very exciting - not so much because it was about their parents but because it meant this vital story would not die with their memories. Says Ruth Bielski: "My father always knew the story would not be told in his lifetime. And it is bittersweet that he is gone, but I believe this movie will do justice and honor to all their memories. The responsibility is in our hands now to pass the story on to our children, and to hope that our children pass it on to their children. I think this film will assure that happens."
Robert Bielski remembers that when Edward Zwick first met with the family in New York it seemed to bring all their hopes full circle. "He offered us his vision of what the movie was going be," he says, "and we felt he had it right on target: the sense of what the story was really about, the sense of who the brothers really were. What he also understood was the enormity of having so many survive, this monumental notion of 1200 people walking out of the woods who would go on to create five more generations."
READ MORE ABOUT RECREATING THE BIELSKI ENCAMPMENT, THE MUSIC OF DEFIANCE AND DIRECTOR EDWARD ZWICK
THE ART OF ADAPTATION