Filmmaker challenges notion of Jewish passivity

In the gripping World War II drama “Defiance,” the Jews fight back. That’s all you need to know about Edward Zwick’s saga of survival and community in the woods of Eastern Europe.

But the veteran Hollywood writer-director set out to do more than just tell the remarkable true story of the reluctantly heroic Bielski brothers, who organized and protected hundreds of Belorussian Jews from the Nazis and their collaborators. He also crafted a calculated rebuff to the 60-year-old myth of Jewish passivity during the Holocaust.

The Bielski brothers’ experiences, Zwick explained during a recent publicity stop in San Francisco, “addressed something that had nagged at my unconscious for a very long time: Where was that spirit of resistance? Why had it not been portrayed? The Warsaw Ghetto was something that had stood alone as the sort of poster child for it, but there seemed to be no other evidence. As I began to research, I found that that impulse had been everywhere.”

“Defiance” opens Jan. 16 around the Bay Area.

Zwick speaks in long paragraphs, a rarity among Hollywood types. It’s also rather unusual to hear such weighty insights dispensed by someone dressed in L.A. casual — V-neck sweater, faded jeans and athletic shoes.

“There is a very important distinction that has to be understood between passivity and powerlessness,” he explains deliberately. “The Jews were a stateless people. They had no access to weapons. They didn’t have a government in support of them of any kind. Their neighbors were often hostile. The local gendarmerie was often in collaboration with the Nazis, and they were confronted by this remarkably, precisely executed policy. So that rendered them powerless. But at any moment that they could find the means to resist, they did. And that’s what was absent in the portrait: the human impulse to resist.”

“Defiance” was shot outside Vilnius, Lithuania, some 60 kilometers from where the Bielskis were during the war. The entire story unfolds in the forest that the Bielskis knew so well, and which largely shielded them from the Nazis.

“When you see maps of Eastern Europe, and even Western Europe, where Jews were able to survive, it had to do with landscape,” Zwick notes. “In an urban setting of the sort that [most Jews] were in, there was no hiding. And they were often revealed by others who sought there or exposed them.”

Zwick, who grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago and made his name in Hollywood with “Glory” and “thirtysomething,” lists a number of factors that contributed to the prevailing and ongoing view of Jews as victims. The most jarring is the lengthy silence of those who resisted the Nazis.

“Everyone I’ve ever met who’s done something of this sort does not want to be reminded of that time,” Zwick asserts, “and in fact there are things they have done of which they are not necessarily proud. On top of which there was a certain measure of survivor’s guilt. Why should they talk about themselves when so many others had been lost?”

For Jewish moviegoers, “Defiance” will readily evoke associations with the Exodus and Chanukah tales. Zwick gives the film another biblical point of reference.

“For me, it led me back to one point, to read the Book of Judges again,” he confides. “The Book of Judges is a positive Iliad of Jewish warriors. And it reinforced that understanding of how that warrior tradition had been central to the culture, and always has been. To read about Gideon, and Joshua and Jeptha and Deborah and Judith, and it just goes on and on.”

You can add the Bielski brothers to that long list of fighting heroes — and with any luck, “Defiance” will help their name become part of popular Holocaust lore. Zwick, like all filmmakers, intends for his work not only to entertain and educate, but also to have a lasting impact.

“The notion that I might be adding another iconic image to that vocabulary for a younger generation is something that was important to me,” he says. “There is shame attached to that single and more oversimplified understanding of what happened.”

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.