Using hope as a weapon

Zwick says 'Defiance' gives him a chance to present a different kind of World War II Jew.

Edward Zwick 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Edward Zwick 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Director Edward Zwick knows you want to hear his thoughts on how his latest film, Defiance, a look at Jewish partisans during World War II, is or isn't a metaphor for the Gaza conflict. But he didn't come to Tel Aviv to talk about that. "I'm not a pundit," he says, framed by a spectacular view of the Tel Aviv beach from his hotel suite. "This film was planned and made long before the fighting. But it is interesting how films become contextualized as soon as they appear." In terms of how his film - which opens here this Thursday - relates to that context, "That's something for other people to notice and write about." In fact, Zwick has been trying to make the film about the Bielski brothers for years, but it only came together now. It's surely one of the last great stories of World War II to be put on film: The Jewish Bielski brothers - Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron - fled from the Nazis into the Polish forest and engaged in armed resistance. Even more impressive is the fact that they took in all refugees that arrived from the nearby Jewish ghetto, eventually building a community of 1,200 people, many of whom were women, children and elderly. The brothers survived, and most of those with them survived the war, too, and eventually moved to the US. Tuvia and Zus, who were the driving force behind the community, are played in the film by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, two stars who have guaranteed that the film falls squarely into the mainstream Hollywood category. It's not exactly a departure for Zwick, who has made period war films before, including Glory, for which Denzel Washington won his first Oscar, and hard-hitting, fact-based dramas, such as Blood Diamond, with Leonardo DiCaprio. He's also known for his ability to mix lighter moments with action, and he first became famous when he created the young midlife crisis television drama thirtysomething in the Eighties; he may be best known for winning an Oscar as the producer of Shakespeare in Love. BUT DEFIANCE, which examines not so much what the Bielski brothers accomplished, rather how they did it and at what emotional cost, may be his most personal work to date. Recently, he published an article in The New York Times describing the tough Jewish uncles who had been an influence in his childhood. "I had made this film to affirm the connection between my safe, assimilated life and the lives of those hardened, proud relatives of my childhood," he concluded. But those uncles and their toughness were at odds with the story of the Holocaust as Zwick had heard it. "When you're memorializing the six million who died, there is a certain powerful iconography of victimization, and it tends to be monochromatic and maybe to objectify them just a bit. But I had relatives who were strong and aggressive, and there was a disjunction between these two facts." As he learned of the Bielskis and researched their lives, he realized, "The spirit of life and the impulse to resist are present in everyone... There is a difference between passivity and powerlessness. Passivity is state of mind, and powerlessness is the absence of a state." His research taught him that, "Where there was opportunity, there was resistance." In rural areas, where there was a forest to flee to, as there was where the Bielskis lived, "it was both a sanctuary and a killing ground [since Jews were massacred by the Nazis and their minions in forests]." But although he had learned of the ways in which Jews had suffered, this film gave him a chance to present a different kind of Jew, and to reconnect with the family tough-guy legacy. "The Bielskis were ordinary men, unsophisticated, unschooled, but nonetheless, look at what they accomplished. It's a universal story of what people are capable of, not just a story of one historical moment." Although he had a dream cast, they faced a difficult shoot in Lithuania during the winter. It was also disheartening to see how little the younger generation there knew about what had happened in its own backyard. "With young people in Germany, you know they have spent at least a year in school learning about the Holocaust. But not in Lithuania," he says. In Israel on the last leg of a promotional tour that took him to several European cities, he says he wished he could have brought the finished film to Lithuania, Poland and other countries where there is little knowledge about the Holocaust. At an emotional screening in Jerusalem, and other screenings elsewhere, Zwick said, former partisans have come forward and "thanked me for telling their story. No one had really shown their experience before." Zwick, who grew up near Chicago, talked a bit about the Obama inauguration, which he had seen the day before with Jerusalem Cinematheque founder Lia van Leer, an old friend. "I couldn't help thinking about the role of hope in the culture. Hope was a weapon for them [the Bielskis]," he says. "And it's not a bad week to talk about hope."