Defiance (2008 film)

Last updated

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Edward Zwick
Written by
  • Clayton Frohman
  • Edward Zwick
Based onDefiance: The Bielski Partisans
by Nechama Tec
Produced by
Cinematography Eduardo Serra
Edited by Steven Rosenblum
Music by James Newton Howard
Distributed by
Release date
  • December 31, 2008 (2008-12-31)
Running time
137 minutes [1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$32 million
Box office$51.2 million

Defiance is a 2008 American war film directed by Edward Zwick set during the occupation of Belarus by Nazi Germany. The screenplay by Clayton Frohman and Zwick was based on Nechama Tec's 1993 book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, an account of the Bielski partisans, a group led by Polish Jewish brothers who saved and recruited Jews in Belarus during the Second World War. The film stars Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski, Liev Schreiber as Zus Bielski, Jamie Bell as Asael Bielski, and George MacKay as Aron Bielski.


Production began in early September 2007. After a limited release, e.g. Los Angeles, New York City, in the United States on December 31, 2008, it went into general release worldwide in January and February 2009. [2]


In August 1941, Nazi Germany's Einsatzgruppen are sweeping through Eastern Europe systematically killing European Jews. Among the survivors not killed or restricted to ghettoes are the Jewish Bielski brothers: Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron. Their parents are dead, killed by local Schutzmannschaft under orders from the German occupiers. The brothers flee to the Naliboki forest, vowing to avenge the deaths of their parents.

The brothers encounter other Jewish escapees hiding in the forest and take them under their protection and leadership. Tuvia kills the Schutzmannschaft chief responsible for his parents' deaths. Over the next year, they shelter a growing number of refugees, raiding local farms for food and supplies and moving their camp whenever they are discovered. The Bielski brothers stage raids on the Germans and their collaborators. Casualties cause Tuvia to reconsider this approach because of the risk to the hiding Jews. Rivalry between the two eldest brothers, Tuvia and Zus, fuels a disagreement between them about their future; as winter approaches, Zus decides to leave the camp and join a local company of Soviet partisans, while his older brother Tuvia remains with the camp as their leader. An arrangement is made between the two groups in which the Soviet partisans agree to protect the Jewish camp in exchange for supplies.

After a winter of sickness, starvation, attempted mutiny and constant hiding, the camp learns that the Germans are about to attack them in force. The Soviets refuse to help and they evacuate the camp as Luftwaffe Stukas bomb them. A delaying force stays behind, led by Asael, to slow down the German infantry. The defense does not last long; only Asael and a camp member named Sofiya survive to rejoin the rest of the group, who, at the edge of the forest, are confronted with a seemingly impassable marsh. They cross the marsh with only one casualty but are immediately attacked by a German platoon supported by a Panzer III tank. Just as all seems lost, the Germans are assaulted from the rear by a partisan force led by Zus, who has deserted the Soviets to rejoin the group.

In the epilogue, it is revealed that the survivors lived in the forest for another two years, building a hospital, a nursery, a school, growing to a total of 1,200 Jews. Original photographs of the participants are shown, including Tuvia in his uniform and their fates are described: Asael was conscripted into the Red Army and was killed in action, never getting to see the child he fathered; Tuvia, Zus and Aron survived the war and emigrated to the United States to form a trucking firm in New York City. The epilogue also states that the Bielski brothers never sought recognition for what they did and that the descendants of the people they saved now number in the tens of thousands.



Zwick began writing a script for Defiance in 1999 after he acquired film rights to Tec's book. Zwick developed the project under his production company, the Bedford Falls Company, and the project was financed by the London-based company Grosvenor Park Productions with a budget of $32 million.

In May 2007 actor Daniel Craig was cast in the lead role. Paramount Vantage acquired the rights to distribute Defiance in the United States and Canada. [3] The following August, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, and Tomas Arana were cast. [4] Production began in early September 2007 so Craig could complete filming Defiance before moving on to reprising his role as James Bond in Quantum of Solace . [3]

Defiance was filmed in three months in Lithuania, just across the border from Belarus. [5] [6] Co-producer Pieter Jan Brugge felt the shooting locations, between 150 and 200 kilometres from the actual sites, lent authenticity; some local extras were descended from families the group had rescued. [7]


Critical response

Defiance received mixed reviews from film critics. [8] Rotten Tomatoes reported that 59% of critics gave the film a positive review based upon a sample of 189, with an average score of 5.91/10. The site's consensus states: "Professionally made but artistically uninspired, Ed Zwick's story of Jews surviving WWII in the Belarus forest lacks the emotional punch of the actual history." [9] At Metacritic the film has received an average score of 58/100 based on 34 reviews. [8]

Critic A. O. Scott of The New York Times called the film "stiff, musclebound". He said Zwick "wields his camera with a heavy hand, punctuating nearly every scene with emphatic nods, smiles or grimaces as the occasion requires. His pen is, if anything, blunter still, with dialogue that crashes down on the big themes like a blacksmith's hammer". Scott also said the film unfairly implied that "if only more of the Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe had been as tough as the Bielskis, more would have survived". [10] The review adds that "in setting out to overturn historical stereotypes of Jewish passivity ...(the film) ends up affirming them." [10] Zwick responded: "it is a tribute to honor and luck, and to help other people escape it is an honor. But the fact that you don't escape it is not a negative verdict on your honor." [11]

The New Yorker critic David Denby praised the film, saying: "it makes instant emotional demands, and those who respond to it, as I did, are likely to go all the way and even come out of it feeling slightly stunned." Denby praised its performances, which he described as "a kind of realistic fairy tale set in a forest newly enchanted by the sanctified work of staying alive." [12]

A review by Armchair General magazine cited the book Women in the Holocaust by Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman, to argue that in reality the Bielskis were less egalitarian than the film suggests, and that "the fighters had the first pick among women for sexual partners." [13]

Zwick responded to the criticism by saying that Defiance is not a simple fight between good and evil. He told The Times: "The Bielskis weren't saints. They were flawed heroes, which is what makes them so real and so fascinating. They faced any number of difficult moral dilemmas that the movie seeks to dramatise: Does one have to become a monster to fight monsters? Does one have to sacrifice his humanity to save humanity?" [14]

Nechama Tec, on whose book the film is based, stated in an interview with Rzeczpospolita that she was initially shocked by the film, especially by the intense battle scenes including combat with a German tank. These never occurred in reality; the partisans tried to avoid combat and were focused on survival. She explained this as a concession by the producer in order to make the film more thrilling and obtain the necessary funding from Hollywood. Nevertheless, after seeing the film a number of times, Tec said that she was liking it "more and more". [15] Zwick said Adolf Hitler sent two German divisions into the forest to search for the partisans, but they were unable to locate them. [16]

The mention of ampicillin is an anachronism. In one scene, it is stated that there may be an epidemic of typhus, and that ampicillin (which was not discovered until 1958) is needed.[ citation needed ]


The Times and The Guardian reported that Poles fear "Hollywood has airbrushed out some unpleasant episodes from the story", such as the Bielski partisans' alleged affiliation with those Soviet partisans directed by the NKVD, who committed atrocities against Poles in eastern Poland, including the region where Bielski's unit operated. [14] [17] [18] Gazeta Wyborcza reported six months before the film's release that "News about a movie glorifying [the Bielskis] have caused an uproar among Polish historians", who referred to the Bielskis as "Jewish-Communist bandits". [19] The newspaper commented that it "departed from the truth on several occasions", including depicting pre-war Nowogrodek as a Belarusian town where "no one speaks Polish", "there are only good Soviet partisans and bad Germans", and "Polish partisans are missing from the film altogether". [20] [21]

According to The Guardian , the movie was booed at some cinemas and banned from others due to a "local perception that it is a rewriting of history and anti-Polish". [22] On March 11, 2009, the Polish Embassy in London disputed the report, stating: "This embassy has been in touch with Defiance's only distributor in Poland, Monolith Plus, and we have been told that this film has not experienced any form of booing, let alone been banned by any cinemas." [23] The wave of criticism against the film led to charges that the anger was fueled by anti-semitism. [24] [22]


Most reviewers from Belarus criticised the film for a complete absence of the Belarusian language and for the Soviet partisans singing a Belarusian folk song while they would more likely be singing Russian songs. [25] "The word Belarusian is spoken out only three times in the movie", the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii wrote. Veterans of the Soviet partisan resistance in Belarus criticised the film for inaccuracies. [26] [27] Some reviews, as in Poland, criticised the film for ignoring the Bielski partisans' crimes against the local population. [28]

Box office

Defiance made $128,000 during its two weeks of limited release in New York City and Los Angeles. It made $10 million during its first weekend of wide release in the United States, and by the end of its box office run, the film made approximately $52 million worldwide.


On January 22, 2009, the film received a nomination for an Academy Award in the category of Best Original Score for its soundtrack by James Newton Howard. It was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score for 2008. [29]

See also

Related Research Articles

The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews is a non-fiction book by Peter Duffy, which was published in 2003. It tells the story of Tuvia Bielski, Alexander Zeisal Bielski (Zus), Aharon Bielski, and Asael Bielski, four Jewish brothers who established a large partisan camp in the forests of Belarus during World War II which participated in resistance activities against the Nazi occupation of the country, and so saved 1,200 Jews from the Nazis. The book describes how, in 1941, three brothers witnessed their parents and two other siblings being led away to their eventual murders. The brothers fought back against Germans and collaborators, waging guerrilla warfare in the forests of Belarus. By using their intimate knowledge of the dense forests surrounding the towns of Lida and Novogrudek, the Bielskis evaded the Nazis and established a hidden base camp, then set about convincing other Jews to join their ranks. The Germans came upon them once but were unable to get rid of them. As more Jews arrived each day, a robust community began to emerge; a "Jerusalem in the woods". In July 1944, after some 30 months in the woods, the Bielskis learned that the Germans, overrun by the Red Army, were retreating back toward Berlin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bielski partisans</span> Jewish partisan unit during World War II

The Bielski partisans were a unit of Jewish partisans who rescued Jews from extermination and fought the German occupiers and their collaborators around Novogrudok and Lida in German-occupied Poland. The partisan unit was named after the Bielskis, a family of Polish Jews who organized and led the community.

Operation Hermann was a German anti-partisan action in the Naliboki forest area carried out between 13 July 1943 and 11 August 1943. The German battle groups destroyed settlements in the area. During the operation, German troops burned down over 60 Polish and Belarusian villages and murdered 4280 civilians. Between 21,000 and 25,000 people were sent to forced labour in the Third Reich.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">German occupation of Byelorussia during World War II</span> Nazi occupation of Belarus during World War II

German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 led to the military occupation of Byelorussia until August 1944 with the Soviet Operation Bagration. The western parts of Byelorussia became part of the Reichskommissariat Ostland in 1941, and in 1943 the German authorities allowed local collaborators to set up a regional government, the Belarusian Central Rada, that lasted until the Soviets reestablished control over the region. Altogether, more than 2 million people were killed in Belarus during the three years of Nazi occupation, almost a quarter of the region's population, including 500,000 to 550,000 Jews in the Holocaust in Belarus.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Belarusian resistance during World War II</span> Belarusian combatant organisations opposed to Nazi Germany

The Belarusian resistance during World War II opposed Nazi Germany from 1941 until 1944. Belarus was one of the Soviet republics occupied during Operation Barbarossa. The term Belarusian partisans may refer to Soviet-formed irregular military groups fighting Germany, but has also been used to refer to the disparate independent groups who also fought as guerrillas at the time, including Jewish groups, Polish groups, and nationalist Belarusian forces opposed to Germany.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jewish partisans</span> Anti-Nazi and anti-German fighting groups of Jews in World War II

Jewish partisans were fighters in irregular military groups participating in the Jewish resistance movement against Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Naliboki massacre</span> 1943 massacre of Poles

The Naliboki massacre was the 8 May 1943 mass killing of 129 Poles, including women and children, by Soviet partisans in the small town of Naliboki in German-occupied Poland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dzyatlava Ghetto</span> Nazi ghetto in occupied Belarus

The Dzyatlava Ghetto, Zdzięcioł Ghetto, or Zhetel Ghetto was a Nazi ghetto in the town of Dzyatlava, Western Belarus during World War II. After several months of Nazi ad-hoc persecution that began after the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, the new German authorities officially created a ghetto for all local Jews on 22 February 1942. Prior to 1939, the town (Zdzięcioł) was part of Nowogródek Voivodeship of the Second Polish Republic.

Bielski is a Polish spelling of the Slavic surname Belsky. The Lithuanized form is Bielskis/Bielskiene/Bielskytė, Latvian: Beslkis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tuvia Bielski</span> Polish leader of the Bielski group, Jewish partisans

Tuvia Bielski was a Belarusian Jewish militant who was leader of the Bielski group, a group of Jewish partisans who set up refugee camps for Jews fleeing the Holocaust during World War II. Their camp was situated in the Naliboki forest, which was part of Poland between World War I and World War II, and which is now in western Belarus.

Roland Tec is an American writer and movie director. His 1997 film All the Rage is widely considered a hallmark of the Queer Indie Film Movement of the '90s for what was then its unprecedented critical view of A-list gay male culture of perfection.

Nechama Tec is a Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. She received her Ph.D. in sociology at Columbia University, where she studied and worked with the sociologist Daniel Bell, and is a Holocaust scholar. Her book When Light Pierced the Darkness (1986) and her memoir Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1984) both received the Merit of Distinction Award from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. She is also author of the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans on which the film Defiance (2008) is based, as well as a study of women in the Holocaust. She was awarded the 1994 International Anne Frank Special Recognition prize for it.

Asael Bielski was the second-in-command of the Bielski partisans during World War II.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">The Holocaust in Belarus</span> Overview of the Holocaust in Belarus

The Holocaust in Belarus is the term that refers to the systematic discrimination and extermination of Jews living in the former Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic which was occupied by Nazi Germany after August 1941 during World War II. It is estimated that roughly 800,000 Byelorussian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. However, other estimates put the number of Jews killed between 500,000 and 550,000.

Aron Bielski, later changed to Aron Bell, is a Polish-American Jew and former member of the Bielski partisans, the largest group of Jewish armed rescuers of Jews during World War II. He was also known as Arczyk Bielski. The youngest of the four Bielski brothers, he is the only one still living.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Naliboki forest</span> Forest in Belarus

Naliboki Forest ) is a large forest complex in northwestern Belarus, on the right bank of the Neman River, on the Belarusian Ridge. Much of the area is occupied by pine forests and swamps, and some parts of the Naliboki are rather hilly. Rich fauna include deer, wild boars, elks, beavers, bears, bison, wood grouses, heath cocks, snipes etc. The forest is named after a small town of Naliboki situated in the middle of it, although the title of "informal capital of the forest" belongs rather to the town of Ivyanets.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alexander Zeisal Bielski</span> Leader of the Bielski partisans

Alexander Zeisal "Zus" Bielski was a leader of the Bielski partisans who rescued approximately 1,200 Jews fleeing from the Nazi Holocaust during World War II.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Koldichevo</span>

Koldichevo (Kaldyčava/Koldychevo/Kołdyczewo) was the site of a Nazi concentration camp 16 kilometres (10 mi) north of Baranovichi, Belarus. About 22,000 people, mostly Jews, were killed in the camp between 1942 and 1944.

The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (JPEF) is a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, California, that produces short films and other educational materials on the history and life lessons of the Jewish partisans. During World War II, 20,000 to 30,000 Jewish men and women fought back against the Germans and their collaborators as partisans.


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  6. Talis Saule Archdeacon (January 9, 2008). "Baltic film returns to world stage". The Baltic Times . Retrieved January 21, 2008.
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  10. 1 2 Review in The New York Times from December 31, 2008
  11. "Ed Zwick on Passivity, Jewish Power, and Hamas" by Jeffrey Goldberg The Atlantic – January 16, 2009
  12. David Denby (film critic) (January 12, 2009). "Survivors". The New Yorker . Retrieved January 19, 2009.
  13. "Defiance – Movie Review" Armchair General. January 17, 2009. Retrieved January 2, 2010.
  14. 1 2 Kamil Tchorek (December 31, 2008). "Country split over whether Daniel Craig is film hero or villain". The Times . London. Retrieved December 31, 2008.
  15. Rzeczpospolita interview with Nehama Tec Link to article
  16. "Defiance – Edward Zwick Interview" HistoryNet. January 13, 2009. Retrieved January 2, 2010.
  17. Kate Connolly (March 5, 2009). "Jewish resistance film sparks Polish anger". The Guardian . Retrieved March 5, 2009.
  18. Bielski pomagał Żydom, ale też ich wykorzystywał. (2009-01-23). Retrieved on 2012-07-03.
  19. A Hollywood Movie About Heroes or Murderers?, Gazeta Wyborcza, June 16, 2008
  20. (in English) The True Story of the Bielski Brothers (in Polish) Prawdziwa historia Bielskich , Gazeta Wyborcza , January 6, 2009
  21. (in Polish) Nazywam się Bielski, Tewje Bielski [My name is Bielski, Tewje Bielski], Gazeta Wyborcza, January 22, 2009
  22. 1 2 "Jewish resistance film sparks Polish anger" The Guardian. March 5, 2009. Retrieved January 2, 2010.
  23. "Anger over Bielski detachment film" The Guardian. March 11, 2009. Retrieved January 2, 2010.
  24. Film, History and Memory, Palgrave Macmillan, chapter by Mercedes Camino, page 96
  25. Belarus is a Klondike for Blockbuster Movies Archived February 25, 2009, at the Wayback Machine . Retrieved on 2012-07-03.
  26. (in Belarusian) Сведкі пра герояў галівудскага фільма "Выклік": "Ваякі былі ерундовыя" [Witnesses about heroes of Defiance: "They were bad fighters"] Archived March 9, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  27. (in Russian) Что в фильме про Джеймса Бонда в роли белорусского партизана правда, а что – вымысел? [What is true and what is invented in the film of James Bond as a Belarusian partisan?#93; [ permanent dead link ]
  28. (in Belarusian) Галівудзкае беларускае кіно [A Hollywood movie about Belarus]
  29. "The 66th Annual Golden Globe Awards (2009)". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 2009. Archived from the original on December 29, 2010. Retrieved June 23, 2009.