Think Holocaust movie. What do you see?
Lines of weary men, women and children being herded to their deaths?
Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Iben Hjejle, Mia Wasikowska, George MacKay
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 31 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 9 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
That’s the conventional view. But in the based-on-fact World War II drama “Defiance” three Jewish brothers fight the Nazis to a standstill in the forests of what is now Belarus.
The fierceness of their resistance surprised even the actors who portray them.
In recent phone conversations, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell, who play siblings Zus and Asael Bielski (Daniel Craig portrays a third Bielski brother), said that filming “Defiance” in Lithuania had made them look anew at Holocaust history.
Some of the shots were filmed in a forest just 100 miles from where the story took place. They felt a visceral appreciation of what the Bielskis and their guerrilla army of Jewish survivors endured.
“Before getting this scrip,t I didn’t know about the Bielskis,” Schreiber said. “I’d done lots of work on the Holocaust for projects I’d done in the past, but this tale really surprised me.”
Bell (“Billy Elliot”) said a high point was meeting the American offspring of the Bielski brothers, who immigrated to the United States after the war.
“It was a valuable experience to realize that out of war these guys created life,” said Bell, 22. “They saved 1,200 people who came to their camp in the woods, Jews who survived to create a whole new generation. And we were able to shake hands with their descendants, the living legacy they left behind.”
“Not all Jews marched meekly to their deaths,” said Schreiber, who is Jewish. “The Bielskis’ story allowed us to make a Holocaust film that ends triumphantly.”
Living in the forest, raiding farms for food and German outposts for weapons and ammunition, the Bielski band created a tiny civilization.
“You got the sense that they learned to survive so well that at some point they were thriving,” Schreiber said. “They were building hospitals, holding weddings. There was political infighting. They started small businesses to produce things. It was all about the freedom they could experience living in the woods.
“In the ghetto people had freedoms taken away from them incrementally. But in the Bielski camp people were looking to the future.”
It’s an incredible story of survival. But the brothers were tough guys to begin with, Schreiber said.
“I got the sense both from their relatives and from my reading that these were hard men long before the Nazis invaded Belorussia. For years they had been involved in black market activities. They were smugglers, heavies.
“There was a story about a neighbor who allowed his sheep to get into the Bielskis’ pasture, and they beat him within an inch of his life.
“So they were equipped to deal with what the Germans brought them. They were already fluent in the language of violence, brutality and fear.”
It was inspiring to realize that the Bielskis weren’t alone, Schreiber said. There are many stories of Jewish resistance to the Nazis.
Making “Defiance” was “a filmmaker’s nightmare” for director Edward Zwick, according to Bell.
“Moving heavy equipment through the woods, working outside in miserable weather ... by the end of the shoot we were filming in real snow and ice.
“But the physical hardships only helped us understand what our characters went through. I remember my first visit to see the primitive living conditions on the set and thinking, ‘If this was me, Jamie Bell, I wouldn’t have survived this.’
“But as filming went on it became a personal mission to honor these people by enduring at least a bit of what they endured.”
Schreiber agreed: “The little visceral things lend credibility to an actor’s performance.”
After all, spending weeks outdoors with his two co-stars led to some genuine fraternal feelings, Bell said.
“I know the film has dark themes, but actually me, Daniel and Liev had a lot of fun.
“Making a movie is like being part of a family. For this film we actually had to huddle together because it was so cold. By your fifth week in the forest it was hard to see the light at the end. We really did keep each other going.”
Bell said he particularly bonded with Schreiber, who shared his knowledge of Holocaust history.
“Liev is a bit different from other actors in that he’s a film director as well. He enters things with a much different plan; where some actors think only of their own performances, he sees the big picture. You work with him, and he elevates your performance because you want so much to rise to his level.
“I’ve rarely encountered an actor who brings so much thinking and preparation to the set.”
Bell said he was astounded by the physicality of Craig, who would spend his days shooting action scenes and then spend his evenings in a gym.
“At night Daniel would work out so he could bulk up to play James Bond in ‘Quantum of Solace.’”
In the eight years since making a big splash as the dancing Billy Elliot, Bell has appeared in 10 hugely diverse films ranging from the Charles Dickens classic “Nicholas Nickleby” to Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” to Clint Eastwood’s war film “Flags of Our Fathers.”
“It’s hard to find diversity in your roles,” Bell said. “But I’ve been able to do it thanks to great representation and by taking it slow. I’m always learning, and I try not to rush into anything.”
After shooting “Defiance” Bell took a year long vacation from film. His next project will be in another “Defiance” drama, “Defiance of Gravity” opposite Joan Allen.
Schreiber, meanwhile, said he was looking forward to family business.
Referring to his companion, actress Naomi Watts, he said: “Naomi and I have been working on a project for nine months now, and it should debut at any moment.”
In fact one week after this interview, on Dec. 13, Watts and Schreiber’s second son was born.