Originally published in Script magazine November/December 2008
Bob Verini is the Los Angeles-based theater critic for Daily Variety, for whom he also contributes features on film, theater and television. Since 2000 he has been a senior writer for Script. Twitter: @BobVerini
Hollywood first acknowledged the existence of the Nazi death camps in 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg, meaning there’s been a half-century of opportunity to explore the ramifications of the Hitler regime. And by and large, cinema has muffed it.
Of course, the images of the victims behind barbed wire and shuffling toward extinction are indelible and must remain so. But where are all the stories of heroic refugee resistance? Mostly MIA.
Popular novelizations of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, John Hersey’s The Wall and Leon Uris’ Mila 18, have been endlessly optioned and endlessly placed in turnaround (though the former did finally get a telefilm adaptation). We were given a limited view of the Warsaw battle in The Pianist and glimpses of armed struggle in Schindler’s List, but these were primarily true stories of individual heroism, not depictions of freedom fighters acting in concert. European films, at least those exported to the U.S., have done little better.
But this year Edward Zwick, perhaps Hollywood’s foremost engaged historical filmmaker (director of Glory, writer of The Last Samurai), steps into the void to dramatize an astonishing true-life, three-year story of resistance heroism titled Defiance, with big-screen scope and major film names Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell.
In 1995, Zwick was struck by the subhead of a New York Times obituary for one Zus Bielski: “‘Jewish man and his brothers evade the Germans, rescue 1,000 Jews in the forest’ … I thought I’d read a lot of World War II stories, but never this one.” Zwick and childhood chum Clayton Frohman (Under Fire) optioned a book-length history of the Bielski Brigade, Defiance by Nechama Tec, and began breaking it down without a deal in place.
“We started working on other things, taking other gigs, though we kept coming back to it. Always, it was a large rock up the steep hill; always, I saw it as a swing for the fences.” The team’s approach changed materially in the course of 10 years of development and scripting, as did their take on the climax of the movie—the sequence they chose to discuss with Script.
The Bielski Saga
The first quarter of Tec’s narrative details life in the village of Stankiewicze in what was then Western Belorussia (now the Republic of Belarus), focusing on the village’s single family of Jews. Only a few Bielskis survived the tumult of the 1939 occupation by Russia and the German invasion two years later, but the survivors made their presence known.
In the midst of the German roundup and relocation of Poland’s Jews—whose ultimate fate is now, of course, well-known—a significant number of souls sought alternatives to passive resistance. Among them were the Bielskis, led by oldest brother Tuvia (Daniel Craig in Defiance), who began to spirit their wives and children into a nearby forest. Over time, they were joined by other refugees preferring the uncertainty of a life in hiding to deportation and the (rumored) ghastly fate that was the destiny of Jews who chose to remain in towns.
Adapting Tec’s book led to many false starts. The sticking point, the writing team now realizes, was the original plan to write the entire three-year Bielski adventure beginning in late 1941. Says writer-director Zwick, “That included probably 30 pages of exposition of life before the occupation; all the personal lives; the Russian invasion and its depredations.”
What cracked the piece, years along the development decade, was what he calls “a fundamental re-imagining. It was our saying, ‘What if we began in media res? And what if we stopped only having come through the first glimmer of possibility of survival?’” In other words, Defiance would let the kernel of the story stand for the rest.
Says Frohman, “I always likened the writing process to a piece of sculpture.We had to have the raw materials to discard, in a way. The first time we sat here, there was so much history, and it was, well, where do we begin? But maybe it all had to be written to be cut, a process of cutting for the sake of deepening.”
Zwick agrees. “The telescoping gave us the courage of ellipsis. It allowed us to throw out so much that was unnecessary, and to fill [that space] with relationships and dynamics among the characters. The more stripped away the storytelling, the more things were carved down to their raw essentials. Less spoken, and more revealed through behavior.” Most of all, he admits, the decision to encapsulate “allowed the piece to continue to grow and for us to continue to work on it”—not to mention turning the story into a movie someone would finance.
In another early decision, the screenwriters pegged much of the dialogue on the dialectic between brothers Tuvia and Zus (Liev Schreiber) regarding strategy and tactics. Tuvia was intent upon rescue while Zus emphasized retaliation, says Zwick, “and that would take the brothers through the entire story; but a dynamic of character in action rather than thought.” The writers encapsulate the brothers’ disparate viewpoints in one terse dialogue exchange:
ZUS: God’s gone. We live or we die alone.
TUVIA: (looking at refugees) No. Not alone.
While both Bielskis were certainly motivated at the outset by sheer survival, each one’s thinking deepened after months in the forest. It was eventually Tuvia’s idea that the survivors and refugees form an “otriad,” an armed brigade that would live self-sufficiently off the forest, emerging whenever possible to inflict damage (or at least confusion) on the occupying forces. Cooperation in the face of the enemy, Polish collaborators, and internal squabbles proved difficult, but Tuvia was clearly the inspirer: “Every one of us who lives,” Zwick and Frohman have him say, “is an act of defiance and an act of faith.” The Jews trained each other in survival techniques and armed combat. Refugees died, new ones arrived, romances bloomed.
A collective was born, its details taken directly from the pages of Tec’s meticulously researched history.
Historically and on film, Zus chose his own act of defiance, joining an organized group of Russian guerrillas less interested in saving the populace than in slaughtering Germans by any possible means. Throughout the film they keep disappearing, with Zus periodically returning to renew contact with the family and continue the debate with his brother (as in a clash over the about-to-be-liquidated Novogrodek ghetto, in which Tuvia is ready to come to the aid of residents Zus dismisses as “random Jews”).
The film’s climax, as originally written and in the shooting script, deliberately echoes the Exodus of biblical times. Passover is a day away when the otriad learns that the Germans have discovered their location and are about to strike. Six-hundred members of the Bielski Brigade need to be relocated to safety.
As a rear-guard action fights desperately, a local tells the otriad of the Krasnaya Gorka swamp 10 kilometers east. Beyond it lies the Nieman River, transformed by the spring thaw into “a frigid, churning torrent 500-feet wide.” (“Now would be a good time for God to part the waters,” a sardonic Tuvia mutters, making explicit the Exodus metaphor.) Across that swamp, and then that river, lies survival.
Flash Back: 1997
In one of the very earliest drafts, the principal action sequence of Defiance begins on page 131 with the following vivid description block:
EXT. SWAMP — DAWN
A gray, clammy mist hangs. Sounds of sporadic gunfire. The ragged parade of partisans slogs through the deep mud … in some places up to their waists … holding weapons over their heads as they claw at tall reeds to propel themselves forward … step by torturous step … the mud sticking to their clothes … making them virtually indistinguishable from their surroundings … they swat at flflies … scratch at open sores … pick off leeches … misery …
Over the next eight pages, a man in the swamp tells his wife, “If I thought we were in hell before, I was wrong” and expresses doubt about Tuvia’s leadership. An elderly man is sucked down a bog hole despite Asael’s attempted rescue with a rope around his waist.
At this point, the script begins to intercut the swamp scenes with glimpses of the Russian warriors briefly engaging an enemy platoon, listening to a BBC report of Nazi surrender in Stalingrad, and learning from a captured German that his unit’s objective is across the river from the swamp. Cut back to the otriad reaching the riverbank on page 139 as Tuvia the “shepherd” lays out the path:
TUVIA: People, we must cross the river to reach the forest. We can all make it if we help each other. Those who can swim should assist those who cannot.
The crowd balks. Asael is at a pause, Tuvia offers “a plangent howl from the bottom of his soul”:
TUVIA: It is not impossible! What we have done for three years is impossible — we have survived! Not by miracles — by our strength! We must hold together now. God will not part these waters — we have to do it ourselves.
The group is hushed, apprehensive … then a man removes his ragged boots and holds them up to Tuvia. Another stands, holding up his boots …
Tuvia, tears of gratitude in his eyes, bends to remove his own boots.
The river crossing—“a harrowing undertaking”—occupies the next two densely written pages, with detailed description of the refugees grabbing the ropes and each other, some individuals swept away by the rushing current and others saved, barely. After much peril, the group finds itself on the opposite bank thanking God for its deliverance, though, as Zwick has noted earlier, there’s a lot more movie left after page 142.
As it happens, a series of subsequent circumstances— including the skill of one actor, the graciousness of another, and expert technical opinion—would materially alter both the history and the way in which Defiance would come to an end.
Flash Forward: 2007
Over the next 10 years, the script tightened and narrowed its scope as already described. The sequence in question now begins on page 100. (Thirty-one pages earlier, let it be noted. Asserts Zwick, “Every screenplay I’ve written has gotten shorter rather than longer, more terse than verbose.”) The group takes in the swamp’s immensity, and a quarrel breaks out.
Do they keep going? Hide? Stand and fight? Here we need to consider the effect of casting Jamie Bell—in Billy Elliot years ago, now an accomplished film actor—as the youngest brother Asael, originally a rather stock, callow character with a little romance thrown in.
Zwick says, “It’s a funny thing, but movies often tell you what they want to be. Getting to know [Jamie], it’s as if he drew from us more attention and more focus.” Frohman adds, “We decided right away that Tuvia is this and Zus is that, but Asael—who was actually two years older than Zus—grew in the making with Jamie. A lot of lines and business that were initially Tuvia’s became his, thanks to Daniel’s being the generous actor that he is and seeing that the changes benefited the whole.”
So Bell’s electric presence built up Asael’s role in the early scenes, with unintended consequences Zwick describes through an analogy to rocket telemetry. He’s no expert, he says, but he knows “When you set a rocket’s thrust or timing, the trajectory will go a certain way. But if you change those coordinates or the angle, the trajectory will go differently.
“In the same way, when you change something at the beginning of a script, as it marbles through, it has an effect everywhere. If you’re honest, it’s felt. You can’t just arbitrarily change something. So, as the character of Asael began to take on its own weight, things happened.”
In discussions with Craig, they discovered, according to the director, that “Tuvia is a man who is reluctant to lead. He believes it’s beyond his abilities; he’s unsophisticated, unprepared. He wears the mantle of leader uncomfortably. We began to realize a man like that should reach a moment like Christ in the wilderness, of utter doubt and despair. We had to see him reach the end of his resources. At the same time, this young man [Asael] was starting to come into his size.”
At some point, and neither writer remembers precisely when, their eyes turned to Tuvia’s oration just prior to the river crossing (quoted at length earlier). “I can remember saying to Clay, ‘Shit! We’ve avoided every hoary movie-star cliché in this movie. But this moment, when this guy gives his speech, is predictable and out-of-character with what his arc has been. Wouldn’t it be interesting if he reached the limits of his ability and can go no further in a moment of utter inertia? And Asael is there at that moment to take on that mantle?”
Of course, there were Hollywood realities to consider. “Here you have this major movie star who’s agreed to do a script. For all we know he may have been counting on that moment as one of his big arias! Now I’m about to go to him and say, ‘Guess what? I think it’d be better if we take it away from you and have someone else do that.’
“But this is the beauty of who Daniel Craig is: He understood it in a second. He would much rather go to that darker place.” Dark it became as Tuvia realizes that Asael has disappeared in the rear-guard action:
Tuvia is in hell. If Tuvia waits for Asael, he risks them all being caught. Suddenly, it all falls apart. He sinks to his knees as if his legs can no longer bear his weight. The sudden vacuum of leadership is felt by them all.
At the approach of a spotter plane, Tuvia checks the clip of his wife’s revolver: “Use it on yourself before you let them take you.” Suddenly, a voice interrupts: “Why are we stopping?”
It’s Asael, back from the dead. He hands off a wounded comrade.
ASAEL: (wild-eyed) They’re coming! Why aren’t we moving?
Tuvia looks up at him, lost.Almost helpless.
ASAEL: (CONT’D) We must keep going!
And now the exhortation to attempt the impossible and part their own waters is placed in the mouth of the younger man. No longer “dutifully supporting,” he’s “literally willing his older brother to be strong for them as he has been, time and again.” The plan is now Asael’s, as well:
ASAEL: (turning to the man beside him) Take the rope from your pack. (confusedly, he obeys) Now you … give me your belt.
SHULMAN: We don’t have enough rope.
ASAEL: We’ll link arms. Make a chain. A human chain. What are you talking about?
Tuvia is deeply moved. His little brother has become a man. Once more, he finds his voice.
TUVIA: Each person takes care of the other.
Says Zwick admiringly, “The arc of [Asael’s] character came as a result of looking at this magnificent, compelling actor and how much he deserves to be better known. He’s really on the cusp—Asael as a character, and Jamie as an actor and as a man—and you’re seeing it happen right there in the camera. Th is boy comes of age in this circumstance.”
The refugees support each other through the swamp, and it should be noted that even the directions have become terse; compare the following to the block cited earlier:
The mud sticks to their clothes, faces. Soon they are indistinguishable from their surroundings.
A brief sequence with Zus and the partisans is included to establish Zus’ psychic connection with his brothers before we CUT TO:
THE KRASNAYA GORKA SWAMP empties at last into a shallow river. On the opposite bank is dry land, and beyond, the deep forest. And safety … ON THE OPPOSITE BANK
Asael pulls people up onto dry ground. They lie there, freezing and exhausted. Some cannot control their shivering.
SHULMAN: What’s next … Sinai?
Tuvia can’t help but laugh. Soon they are all laughing. It ripples throughout the group. Joyous. Contagious. An overwhelming feeling of relief.
They are safe.Hang on there. They’re “safe” after wading through a “shallow river”? What happened to the roaring Nieman and the major action set-piece?
Zwick sighs. “There’s the ideal universe in which there’s a bubble in which one writes. And then there is the world of entropy where certain swamps have bacteria, and certain rivers are uncrossable.
“We went looking on several scouts with stuntmen and engineers and construction coordinators, all trying to figure out how one would do a river crossing. ‘You can do this,’ we were told, ‘but you have to find a river that’s still because you can’t work in raging water. Then you have to create the water’s movement. And then you have to build a three-story footing underground.’ It became very clear that these people were not going to cross a river in this movie. It wasn’t going to happen.”
Was Zwick dejected that half their action climax was to be excised? Quite the contrary. “These production obstacles lead you to solutions that are often better for the movie. For, in fact, there was something redundant in the script in having to cross a swamp and then cross a river. So the idea was, how to vest all the meaning of that moment in the swamp.
“And that then led to this climactic moment. Rather than forestalling [the climax, the excision] compressed it, and made it about the dynamic of Tuvia, his leadership and his brother and the group.” In addition, the telescoped action eliminated the need for an extended coda. “The walk now, in the movie, is indeed an emotional conclusion about the group coming together, combined with the metaphor of the belts and the umbilical bonding.”
As so often in filmmaking, necessity proved to be the mother of real invention—“a legacy of the gods,” Zwick gratefully asserts.
Zwick and Frohman are quick to point out that there were many instances of armed resistance to Nazi tyranny, all over Europe and even in the shadow of Auschwitz and Treblinka. They know they’re telling but one such story, and only a segment of that story, at that. Yet as Frohman points out, there’s something to be said for the novelty of the tale. “Those who’ve seen it all say the same thing: ‘I had no idea that this happened.’”
And the filmmakers feel a special kind of responsibility. “For many people who don’t read history,” says Zwick, “the film—for better and for worse—will be all they ever know. So, can you honor what you believe the historical issues, contradictions and complexities are, and then galvanize people to read more, learn more, think more?
“I think intents and purposes count for a lot. You just have to be uncynical in your wish.”
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