Edward Zwick (right) teaches Daniel Craig a thing or two about Defiance.
DEFIANCE directed by Edward Zwick, written by Zwick and Clayton Frohman from the book by Nechama Tec, with Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Mia Wasikowska. A Paramount Vantage release. 137 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (January 16). For venues and times, see Movies.
With the avalanche of holocaust films coming out lately, do we really need another one?
"I wondered what I could possibly add to the Holocaust canon," says acclaimed director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond), getting comfortable in a Park Hyatt hotel room.
"But I realized that with the necessary focus on memorializing the 6 million lost, we had not paid proper attention to those who survived. It turns out the Warsaw Ghetto was only the poster child for resistance and that there was resistance in many other places."
Defiance tells the story of Polish Jews who fight back against the Nazis while hiding in the forest. Subverting the stereotype of the passive Jew is central to Zwick's mission.
"The iconography of victimization and passivity fails to take into account the distinction between passivity and powerlessness," he explains. "Passivity suggests submission and a kind of fatalism; powerlessness is political - it has to do with statelessness, the unavailability of weapons, anti-Semitism. We don't say that people in Vietnam were passive, or even the people in Darfur."
Zwick scored a major casting coup by snapping up Bond guy Daniel Craig for the role of leader Tuvia Bielski.
"I was a fan of his work in indie films like Layer Cake, Infamous and The Mother. He has a roughness, that feeling of being a man of action, yet he's soulful. Plus, he's a trained actor and could do the dialect."
As for Craig playing Jewish - a stretch, for sure, even if he did so previously in Munich - Zwick is quick to defend the choice.
"Tuvia Bielski passed as a Gentile - he was blue-eyed, so I felt that actually was right."
Defiance comes out in the wake of movies intent portraying a developing awareness of Nazi brutality among Germans and Austrians born after WWII, like The Counterfeiters and The Reader. Where, Zwick asks, is the consciousness among Eastern Europeans? Walking on the actual ground, he says, makes you wonder.
"Just try to conjure the logistics," he challenges. "I'm moving 150 people in a film company from one place to another, and I know what that takes in terms of trucks, gasoline and equipment.
"Then you think, in this town of Vilnius, 300,000 people were taken, organized, moved, pits dug - the industry of accomplishing what they did was huge. This rhetorical moment in Germany, which has found its expression in films like Downfall or The Counterfeiters, this need to articulate the issues, it's not happening in Eastern Europe. In fact, the Lithuanians welcomed the Germans because they had been under the thumb of the Russians."
Though Zwick has worked with some of filmdom's greatest actors - including Sean Penn (I Am Sam), Tom Cruise (The Last Samurai) and Leonard DiCaprio (Blood Diamond), he's just as well known as the creator of brilliant American television (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Once And Again).
He's saddened by TV's changing landscape. "Television seems to have forgotten about characters for the sake of plot," he says. "It's all about what happens instead of what's felt." He's looking at Internet possibilities for revitalizing the medium.
But does he really miss the small screen?
"I miss it when I'm freezing my ass off in the Lithuanian forest, but when I'm sitting on a sound stage and I've been there for three months, then I want to get the fuck out of Dodge and go to Japan."
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