Defiance: The Bielskis’ Epic Fight For Survival

Liev Schreiber, George MacKay, Daniel Craig, and Jamie Bell in Defiance. Courtesy of Paramount.

Defiance depicts an epic tail of survival in Eastern Europe during the Shoah where the Bielski brothers choose between fighting or surviving

It’s summer 1941 and the Bielskis turned to the woods in what is now Belarus. But at the time, Stankevich was under Soviet control. They don’t really have much of a choice here. It’s either fight to survive in the woods or otherwise be doomed to certain death. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) is the leader of the family although brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) challenges him. One wants to focus on survival while the other wants to get revenge. And then you have younger brother Asael (Jamie Bell) watching as this rivalry plays out. Their youngest brother, Aron (George MacKay), has an almost non-existent role in the film compared to the older brothers.

They’ve just lost their parents. Zus’s wife and daughter were also killed as some 4,000 Jews lost their lives in the Novogrudok Ghetto. Other family members perished during this mass execution. But they survived by escaping into the woods. But as word as of the Bielskis spread, more Jews join them when hope seemed otherwise lost. However, even in the woods, they are out in the open. And honestly, you never know if or when something will happen. Even as they amass their numbers, they could very well have to move at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, they made their way to the Naliboki Forest, where they built an encampment that came to be known as “Jerusalem in the Woods.” The Bielski partisans, known as the Bielski Otriad, were the largest group of Jewish fighters during the Shoah.

Aside from the fighting back against the Nazis, these are people that are fighting for their own humanity. This may come in finding love in the forest. It isn’t uncommon here for someone to have a forest husband or forest wife. Asael meets his wife, Chaya (Mia Wasikowska). Meanwhile, Tuvia might not have been looking for it but his life changed when Lilka (Alexa Davalos) entered the picture. They stayed together for the rest of their lives. As far Zus, he meets Bella (Iben Hjejle). Beyond them, there’s a larger cast of supporting characters with schoolteacher Shimon Haretz (Allan Corduner) and Isaac Malbin (Mark Feuerstein) being the most prominent. You can make the argument that Shimon and Isaac are keeping each other alive during this terrifying time.

Because of the Bielski brothers, about 1200 Jews were able to survive the Nazi atrocities in the forest. Their numbers would only grow after the events in the film but their legacy lives on. Sure, some things in the Defiance didn’t happen but this doesn’t change their bravery and heroism. They are heroes in my book and because of them, some tens of thousands are alive today. Until seeing Defiance for the first time in early 2009, the stories of Jewish resistance felt few and far between on the big screen. I mean, there was the Warsaw Uprising miniseries with David Schwimmer. But again, that was on television. How many opportunities do we get to see Jews fight back during the Shoah? Even thinking about it off the top of my head, there aren’t many films of this nature.

The thing about Defiance is that you have a few themes going on here. Obviously, you have this need to fight back. But on the other hand, there’s this conflict and you see it play out between Tuvia and Zus. The brothers have differing points of view in taking revenge or just focusing on saving other Jews. Zus joins the Soviet Army but lo and behold, he’s there to save the day when the Nazis have them cornered. For what it’s worth, the thing with the tank never happened in real life. Obviously, the filmmakers have to heighten the stakes to secure financing but oh, well. The mere fact that you have Jews fighting back against the Nazis should be enough to greenlight such a film.

Screenwriters Edward Zwick and Clayton Frohman explores every possible facet in this film. They don’t ignore the fact that the partisans turned to violence in order to survive. Ultimately, the focus isn’t on the brothers as individuals but their whole group as community. It’s an element that we see in classic American Westerns.

Behind the camera, Edward Zwick reteams with a number of the Blood Diamond crew. Every minute that the cast and crew shot Defiance on location in Lithuania was worth it. Vilnius, Lithuania substitutes for Belarus because political conditions made the latter impossible for productions. Aesthetically, this is a film that has us feeling things in the moments. There’s no flashiness when it comes to the style. In terms of the sound, James Newton Howard’s score is one of the high parts with it centered on the violin, sometimes hauntingly. Talk to any Jewish family and it’s not hard to find a violinist.

There’s this thought mentality out there that Jews didn’t resist against the Nazis and that Jews were only victims. But what we know from watching what the Bielskis did in Defiance, it’s far from the truth. A countless number of other groups existed at the time. We know that some 20,000 Jews fought back as partisans but many of them were in smaller units. None of them had the numbers that the Bielskis did. It’s only after Tuvia’s death in 1987 that the story begin to get noticed. We have Dr. Nechama Tec’s 1993 book to thank for this. Six million Jews perished during the Shoah but because of the Bielskis, 1,200 Jews were able to survive against the odds.

DIRECTOR: Edward Zwick
SCREENWRITERS: Clayton Frohman & Edward Zwick
CAST: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Tomas Arana, Jodhi May, Kate Fahy, Iddo Goldberg, Iben Hjejle, Martin Hancock, Ravil Isyanov, Jacek Koman, George MacKay, Jonjo O’Neill, Sam Spruell, Mia Wasikowska

Paramount released Defiance on December 31, 2008.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.