Interview: Edward Zwick

The story of the Bielskis’ resistance against the Nazis is a hit at the box office and has now been nominated for an Oscar. So why was its director so reluctant to get involved with the project?


Zwick: his film has made over £2.5 million in the UK

Zwick: his film has made over £2.5 million in the UK

Amid the fuss surrounding The Reader’s nomination for the best picture Oscar, the fact that another Holocaust movie figures on the list of films to be feted at the Academy Awards in three week’s time has gone largely unnoticed.

True, Defiance is up for best original music score, one of the lesser Oscar categories, and it does not, in any way, star Kate Winslet, but for the producers of the film, the nomination will be most welcome. They will also appreciate the fact that, since its release in the UK earlier this month, the film has occupied a place in the top 10 movies and grossed more than £2.5 million, according to the latest figures.

All of which means that Edward Zwick will be congratulating himself on changing his mind about never wanting to make a Holocaust film. The director of The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond felt strongly that the job of recording and expounding on the Holocaust had already been done by greater minds than his. Then his childhood friend, screenwriter Clay Frohman, called him up with an idea for a movie… about the Holocaust.

“Clay said that there was a story about the Shoah I should read about — he thought there could be a film in it. My first response was dread. What could I possibly add to that canon? Reading the piece, an obituary of Jewish partisan Zus Bielski in the New York Times and later Nechama Tec’s book, Defiance, about the Bielski brothers, I realised to my horror that there was indeed something that needed to be said.”

His film, starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, tells the story of the Bielski brothers — two Jewish fighters who took on the Nazis and triumphed. What appealed to Zwick was that it was that rarity — a Second World War film about the Jews and the Nazis in which the Jews win. “In the necessary memorialisation of the six million dead there had been precious little attention paid to those who survived and how they survived. It’s as if we had created a monolithic impression. I thought this story could add some complexity to the portrait.”

It was a big commitment and a long process to make the movie. Tec’s book led Zwick to the family, who led him to other survivors. There were difficulties. It was hard to find financiers for yet another, albeit a very different type, of film about the Holocaust.

Eventually, 12 years after reading Zus’s obituary notice, the film was finally released to huge international attention. “The real reason the film got made was that the last couple of movies I had made did particularly well in Europe. And Daniel Craig [who plays Tuvia Bielski] had this apotheosis”.

Craig, along with co-star Liev Schreiber, is the box office name in the movie, but are his looks not a bit A nglo Saxon for the part? “The funny thing is, when you look at photos of Tuvia Bielski he was fair, blue-eyed and could pass for a gentile. I was familiar with Daniel’s work before he played James Bond and we got to know each other a bit. When this film became a possibility, he was the first person I went to. The character he is playing was strong, charismatic, but also modest and reflective. I thought Daniel possessed those qualities.”

The fascination of the Bielski brothers is that these were proper Jewish heroes — men of action. However, the story is not without moral complexity.

“One reason why in Hollywood we are so often inventing heroes is that real heroes are vexing. The most intriguing thing about these guys was that they were unsophisticated, uneducated men. They were reactive and violent and while some of their actions were remarkable, others were questionable.

“In my experience of the men of action I have met — whether from the Second World War or Iraq or Vietnam — they often had to do things that they would rather not reflect upon afterwards. This is perhaps one reason why the story of the Bielskis remained untold for so long.”

Although some of the methods used by the Bielskis might have been questionable, Zwick is outraged by suggestions by those in modern-day Poland and Lithuania that Jewish partisans may have been guilty of war crimes committed in the name of Stalinism. “To try and draw any moral equivalence between three million dead in Poland and the possibility of an attack which the Bielskis may have undertaken with the Russians is preposterous. And in Lithuania, where no one has been held responsible for the murder of 300,000 Jews, their investigations into the Jewish partisans feels to me like badly disguised anti-Semitism.”

Despite the film’s success, he does have one regret. “It would have been nice to have made the entire movie in Yiddish,” he says, “but I probably would have got about $12 to make that film.”

Defiance is on general release

    Last updated: 12:06pm, January 29 2009