- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

The story of the Bielski brothers is one fraught with heroism, peril and personal drama and set against a historical backdrop that lends itself to the telling of a great tale with implications for modern life.

In other words, it’s perfect Ed Zwick material.

“I’m telling a story, and inevitably, in telling that story, it resonates to larger themes,” Mr. Zwick says.

“Defiance,” based on a 1994 nonfiction book by Nechama Tec, chronicles the survival of a group of Jews in the Belarussian forests; as Nazis advance across Poland, brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) form a community determined to live in as normal a manner as possible while avoiding the concentration camps that have claimed friends and family.

Like past productions helmed by Mr. Zwick - think “Glory,” “The Last Samurai” or “Blood Diamond” - “Defiance” uses the backdrop of war to expound on themes of personal heroism and the competing natural urges all men feel during times of duress.

“I do believe that the dialectic in Nechama Tec’s book that she articulates between revenge and rescue is certainly at the heart of this movie as it was vested in the characters of Tuvia and Zus,” he says.

But the story runs deeper than that.

“I’ve come to believe, as I’ve gotten to know many of the survivors of this group, the title ‘Defiance,’ to my mind, bespeaks their absolute refusal to give up the life force,” Mr. Zwick explains. “To give up their things that defined them as humans - love and joy and marriage and humor and sexuality and family and community and all those things.”

Mr. Zwick says that since completing the film, he has talked to dozens of survivors from the forest villages. “I’ll be sitting there,” he says, “and someone will have been recognized in the audience, and they’ll stand up and rather than ask a question, they will feel obliged to bear witness, to testify, to say, ‘I was there, I never believed my story would be told, I’m so proud that now … my grandchildren will understand it in a way I’ve never been able to explain it.’”

The hardship endured by these survivors is hard to imagine, though Mr. Zwick and company tried to bring their pain to the big screen, shooting on location in a Lithuanian forest in the dead of winter. “You can’t fake that breath,” he says, noting that “those faces start to look mottled and hardened and cardboard.

“The trailers were very far away, and once we were in that forest, we were there. No one was running off the set. Daniel and Liev and the whole cast: They stayed there. And that had an effect. People bonded in this way, and they lived in that forest day upon day.”

This hardship did more to shape the actors’ motivation than any direction from Mr. Zwick could. “I think they took in something that, at least in some small degree, approximated the experience” of the Bielski partisans, he says. “When you’re trying to load a weapon or dig a hole or work a machine … and your fingers are numb or your feet are frozen, you don’t have to talk that much about actions and obstacles and the meaning of the scene.”

The conditions also led to a sense of camaraderie and fraternity among the actors playing the Bielski brothers. “They all … did sort of create this fraternal, regressive, horsing-around thing that was a recapitulation of their childhood,” he says, “an attempt to try and create this bond and this way of being with each other that then found its way into the scenes.”

The future of such intimate large pictures is in some doubt.

“I’m a bit worried about the future of serious subjects in Hollywood movies,” Mr. Zwick confides. “I think that to make a movie that has any kind of complexity or artistic ambition, it’s one thing to do it for a very, very small-scale budget but quite another to do anything that requires scale. And not every story can be told in the bare-bones way.”

Two big problems confront any studio looking to dive fully into the world of more personal, larger-budget films like Mr. Zwick’s. The first is advertising, which will run even a small-budget film $25 million to $30 million. The second is the financial crisis afflicting the rest of the country.

“For the last number of years, as best I understand it, Hollywood has been the beneficiary of a lot of hedge-fund money,” Mr. Zwick says, explaining that Hollywood studios “have often minimized their downside by splitting their risk.”

As the economy worsens, we can expect to see fewer “Defiances” and more “My Bloody Valentines,” movies that open well at the box office, fade quickly and leave little impression on their audiences.

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