“We’ve inherited an idea and an identity of Jews as victims. This is the story of Jews as partisans, survivors, and as people who fought back and would not submit.”—Clayton Frohman, co-writer of Defiance
Defiance tells the true story of the Bielski brothers, four Jewish brothers from a small village in the Soviet Republic of Belorussia (now the independent nation of Belarus), who organized a band of partisans in a four-year fight against the German army and their local collaborators during World War II. Led by the eldest brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber), the Bielski’s also helped create a community of over 1,000 Jewish refugees who hid in the forest and survived the war.
This powerful and moving film, directed, produced and co-written by Edward Zwick, is out on DVD with excellent bonus features that fill in some of the historical background. Zwick was particularly well-equipped to take on such a project, having made such socially conscious and historically acute films as Glory, The Siege and Blood Diamond.
The sons of a miller, the Bielski’s, including younger brothers Asael (Jamie Bell) and Aron (George MacKay), escaped the round-up and murder of Jews carried out by the invading German army in 1941, a genocidal campaign that took the lives of their parents, the wives and children of Tuvia and Zus, and many others. They fled to a nearby forest in search of safety, but instead found other Jewish refugees — men, women and children, many from cities who did not share the Bielski’s rural skills of hunting, shooting and living off the land.
Despite their initial reluctance, the brothers became the leaders of this rag-tag group of survivors, trying to keep them hidden from German soldiers and anti-Semitic locals. They also led raids on both the German troops and their collaborators.
As Zwick explains in an audio commentary and in the behind-the-scenes DVD documentary Defiance: Return to the Forest, political difficulties prevented him from shooting his film in Belarus. But his substitute location, in Lithuania, only about 100 kilometers from where the actual events took place, works very well, having the same type of terrain and World War II-era villages as Belarus. Lithuanian Jews also suffered depravations that were similar to their brethren in neighboring countries.
Craig and Schreiber, two formidable and accomplished actors, are excellent as the rough-hewn, competitive but ultimately loving brothers who are thrust into the unaccustomed position of leaders of this make-shift community. Their experience, temperaments and personalities, particularly Zus’, made them far better suited for guerrilla warfare against the Germans than for community building and nurturance.
Much of the story of Defiance is devoted to the establishment and maintenance of the Jewish refugee community in the forest, especially in reconciling the differences between the educated, urban Jews and the rougher, rural Jews like the Bielski’s. Zwick assembled a superb international cast to make the personalities of these people resonate with viewers. Among them are Swedish-born Allan Corduner (Sir Arthur Sullivan in “Topsy-Turvy”) and American Mark Feuerstein as a professor and journalist, respectively, who become important members of the community; France’s Alexa Davalos and Denmark’s Iben Hjejle (John Cusack’s girlfriend in “High Fidelity”) as the love interests of Tuvia and Zus, and a fine supporting group of American, British and Lithuanian actors.
Two other DVD special features give Defiance additional emotional power. Bielski Partisan Survivors is a powerful collection of black-and-white photographs, from 2008, of the remaining, elderly survivors of the Bielski group.
Children of the Ostriad (partisans) includes interviews with the children and grandchildren of Tuvia and Zus Bielski. We learn at the end of Defiance that the two brothers emigrated to the United States after the war and were business partners in Brooklyn for 30 years.
Their descendants movingly recall how, years later, people would tell them that their grandfather and uncle saved their lives. (Additional testimonies can be found in a History channel documentary, The Bielski Brothers: Jerusalem in the Woods, released earlier this year by A&E Home Entertainment.)
The courage and determination of the Bielski brothers led to saving the lives of 1,200 Jews from Belarus. And one of the Bielski’s sons estimates that there are 19,000 people alive today who are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those survivors.
Defiance not only pays tribute to the Bielski partisans, but also casts an empathetic glance at the plight of refugees everywhere, wherever and whenever people find themselves forced to leave their homes in order to survive. It is indeed a film that, in Zwick’s words to his crew at the end of filming, which was made “in memory, in conscience and with a purpose.”