Defiance: Holocaust Movie Directed by Zwick, Scripted by Frohman

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.”

Not to Whitewash Violence

Still, Zwick did not want to whitewash the violence committed by the partisans in the name of survival. “The Bielskis weren¬ít 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¬ís needs and the group¬ís survival as a whole.”

Producer Pieter Jan Brugge, an Oscar nominee (THE INSIDER) who earlier worked with Zwick on GLORY, sees an allusion to American Westerns in that theme. “There¬ís something in the story that has elements of the old John Ford films–this idea that you¬íre 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.”