Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

Director Edward Zwick Sets the Record Straight with Defiance

Almost invariably, Hollywood has cast the Jews of Europe as helpless casualties of the Third Reich’s reign of terror. But director Edward Zwick tells a very different story in his latest film, Defiance.

Inspired by Nechama Tec’s book of the same name about the remarkable Bielski partisans, a group of some 1,200 Eastern European Jews who avoided capture in the forests of Nazi-occupied Belarus, Zwick, 56, resolved to set the record straight, to make a movie about the Holocaust that would honor those who defended themselves by taking the fight to Hitler’s army. The result is Defiance, which finds Daniel Craig – the fair-haired, blue-eyed Bond of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace – leading the resistance as rugged survivalist Tuvia Bielski.

“I was loath to do a movie about the Holocaust, not because I’m afraid of it, but because the greatest minds of our age – artists, intellectuals, philosophers – have done that, and what could I possibly add?” asks Zwick. “But I believe that something needed to be added to the dialogue. The reality is more complex, but the iconography from that time is one of passivity and victimization.

“Part of that is because of the enduring legacy of Nazi propaganda from the 1930s, and part of it comes from what the Jews themselves have inadvertently done in an attempt to create this industry of remembrance. The images we’ve taken from the Holocaust convey unspeakable horror,” he says, but he believes they have also perpetuated the impression that millions went meekly to their deaths. “Yet there was resistance everywhere,” he adds, “not just the well-documented struggle in the Warsaw ghettos.”

Zwick, a Harvard grad by way of Chicago, has been down this road before, after a fashion. His 1989 movie Glory paid tribute to another group of overlooked heroes, the African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black regiment to fight in the Civil War.

Though hardly alone in their decision to defy Hitler’s roving executioners, the Bielski partisans too represent an oppressed people fighting for their lives. To tell their story, Zwick first had to earn the trust of the Bielski descendants, whose stories and video footage of the late Tuvia Bielski gave him rare insight into a family whose fierce patriarchs (Tuvia and his two brothers, Zus and Asael) would be the heroes of Defiance. He also had to find the right man to play Tuvia, a peasant farmer forced by circumstances into a leadership role he never desired.

Craig, a working-class British actor and veteran of the West End stage, seemed the perfect choice, in part because of his experiences since donning 007’s designer threads. “Daniel seems most comfortable in chameleon-like roles,” says Zwick. “I don’t think he ever imagined himself as an iconic leading man. I’ve always sensed a slight discomfort on his part since he took the Bond role, and I think he channeled some of that into Tuvia.

“What he found here, learning Russian, working in an ensemble cast, made him feel more at home. He’s a generous actor. There are actors who find subtle ways to put themselves ahead of a scene, ahead of their co-stars. They’re piggish. Daniel has a genuine humility that allows him to slip back into the ensemble and let other actors shine. That speaks to his training, but it also gives you an idea of who he is as a person and why I wanted him to star in this movie.”