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Ed Zwick Turns His Lens on a Quartet of Jewish Partisans

Among the slew of Holocaust and Holocaust-related films opening this holiday season comes “Defiance,” based on Nechama Tec’s book about the remarkable true story of the Bielski brothers, Jewish partisans who safeguarded the lives of some 1,200 Jews in the Naliboki forest in Belorussia (Belarus) for more than two years during the war. The Forward’s Shlomo Schwartzberg caught up with Ed Zwick, the film’s director and co-writer, in Toronto, where he was promoting Canada’s January 2009 release of the film.

Shlomo Schwartzberg: How did you find out about the Bielskis, and what attracted you to their story?

Ed Zwick: My childhood friend, [screenwriter] Clay Frohman, read an obituary in The New York Times in 1995; it was Zus’s [one of the four brothers] death, and that led us to Nechama Tec’s book, which we then optioned and began the process of writing a script. Eventually it led us to the Bielski family, many of whom were still in Brooklyn or on Long Island, and they supplied us with anecdotes and photographs and eventually with videotape that they had made of Tuvia [Bielski] at the end of his life, talking about his life. What’s interesting is that I had believed that Warsaw and Sobibor were the only instances in which Jews had fought back. What our research led us to discover is that there were countless numbers of those instances, often futile, [that were] reported but nonetheless usually associated with the availability of the natural world, the forest particularly, in Bialystok, in the Ukraine, in Lithuania, in Poland, any number of places. I think there is some deep irony in [the fact] that Jews not having been allowed to own land came to the cities, helped build the cities, and the cities then became a trap in which they were caught but the natural world has been, metaphorically, in literature and in history, a very important place of sanctuary, whether for the madman, the lover, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the Grimms’ fairy tales, a place of transformation, a place of sanctuary.

What do you make of the fact that a half-dozen major movies related to World War II and the Holocaust (“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Adam Resurrected,” “The Reader,” “Valkyrie,” “Good” and “Defiance”) are coming out in the fall and winter of 2008? Why so many of them now?

I can speculate as to two causes, this being the 11th hour for those still alive. I think there may be some… anxiety about that, that within five years or 10 years there will be no more living memory of it and there may be some urgency of telling stories while those who can tell them are still alive. Also, you know, we Jews are very involved in telling stories. Stories are at the center of our culture; the repetition of stories is, at least in some part, responsible for its preservation, and whether that’s the flight from Egypt in the Exodus in Passover, or the Hanukkah celebration of the Maccabees or Purim, or any of those festivals, the repetition of what was once an oral tradition… is not surprising.

Richard Corliss, in his positive review of “Defiance” in Time magazine, wrote: “Not all Jews under Hitler’s boot were passive victims. Some were warriors,” a comment that upset one reader of his review, who was offended by that reference and pointed out that the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were generally too powerless to avoid their fate. Many people have found problematic the emphasis on the supposed majority of the Jews who died in the Holocaust going quietly to their deaths. Is that one reason you wanted to tell the story of “Defiance,” to counter that prevailing view?

There’s a very important distinction to be made between passivity and powerlessness. Passivity suggests a kind of willing submission; powerlessness is entirely different. Even the phrase “Like lambs to the slaughter” was a phrase uttered first by Abba Kovner, leader of the resistance in Vilnius, who said, “We will not go like lambs to the slaughter,” and yet that phrase gets turned around and bowdlerized as if to be emblematic of a whole psychology. I can’t help but feel that the brilliance of the propaganda of the 1930s on the part of the Nazis still has some vestigial hold in the popular imagination. It’s paradoxical, I would say, in that we have inevitably and necessarily focused and memorialized the 6 million lost, and how could we not? But in doing so, there has been a kind of monolithic presentation of an entire culture, and along with it has come a very specific set of images, even an iconography, and whether those are the striped pajamas or the barbed wire or the stars or any of those images, they’re very strong, and they tended to have given too conventional a portrait of who Jews were. At least, it was important to me to try to add some complexity to that image — not to countermand it, but to maybe give it some shading.

“Defiance” is also unusual in that non-Jews rescued most Jews who were saved during the Holocaust. But here, we have Jews actively doing the rescuing of their fellows. Was that another factor that interested you in the subject?

It is unique in that, and to my mind, therefore, even more necessary.

You seem to be have been faithful to the story of the Bielskis and not deviated too much from the facts. Is that true?

We tried to be faithful as best we could, given the limits of the two hours [running time] and the reductionism that happens inevitably in film. Those signposts, those events, are based on what happened as best we could tell.

And are you happy with the final result?

Am I ever? I don’t know if I’ve ever been happy with anything that has ever come out. [But] I’ve had enough validation to the work to feel that it was worth doing.

Is “thirtysomething,” the groundbreaking, often Jewish-themed 1987 TV drama that is still one of your best-known credits, ever going to come out on DVD

I would pray that MGM (which holds the rights to the series) could get its act together and do what needs to be done to release it, because I’ve been asked this question more times than I can remember and feel exactly as others do: that it deserves to see the light of day. It’s probably the only show that won best drama that has never been released on DVD.

Is it because of the difficulty of getting the music rights that it’s never come out in that format?

Or so they claim. I’ve never managed to penetrate to the bottom of what their issues are, despite having tried many times.

To read a film review of “Defiance,” click here

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a longtime Toronto-based arts reporter, film critic and teacher.

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