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Embattled by evolving evils, the Polish Jewish partisans of "Defiance" must deftly straddle empirical morality amid survival setbacks -- all the while assessing their own newly formed sorrowful society stacked up against them during the Holocaust.
Into the woods they go for a grim existence; whether they leave alive requires an exit strategy at once complicated and complicit in the strength and weaknesses of the motley mix of warriors they have formed.
Opening this Friday, "Defiance" -- based on Nechama Tec's nonfiction tome with the same title -- delves into the daring that was the Bielski Brothers, whose bravura to outlast, outwit and outplay in the ultimate survivor strategy of alliances and alienation, led them to lead some 1,200 others out of the woods and into the free air of postwar Belarus, having braved their way there in 1941.
Director Edward Zwick is in all his glory bringing this battle of a brotherly tale to the screen, as the Bielskis -- common farmers fomenting a revolution -- evolve from the bathos to the battlefield plowing through a day-by-day existence of compromises amid commitment.
The "Defiance" ones no one will confuse for Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier: Daniel Craig bonds as lead bro -- Tuvia -- abetted by Liev Schreiber (Zus) and Jamie Bell (Asael) as the three who can see the forest for the trees -- and the obstacles that stand in front of them.
Director Zwick dramatically trades on the theme of defying the odds no matter how disastrous they appear to be. But then, Zwick's own career has often gone beyond borders, bursting through restrictive frames to artful abandon as he's done some extraordinary work with "thirtysomething" on TV and saddled up a substantive accomplishment in the Civil war-era "Glory" while providing the multifaceted "Blood Diamonds" with a glint of crimson-red anger and the Oscar-winning "Shakespeare in Love" a sonnet on its sleeve.
Once and again, Zwick, 56 -- whose partnership with the Main Line's Marshall Herskovitz (exec producer of "Defiance") in Bedford Falls Productions has proved a wonderful life in the dark for film fans and followers -- is all guts and glory, heeding the heroics of the Bielskis.
Facing hunger and hardship and the death-defying dynamics of their so-called lives on the run, the Bielskis are bellweathers of belief in self for the growing legion of men, women and children they attract to their perversely sylvan setting -- where nature and all its beauty stand in urgent ugly contrast to the unnatural stance they are forced to take as the human-hunted.
The partisans' impromptu dugouts (zemlyankas) are underground dungeons from which they plan and plot. But as the plot of the film and the haze of the forest thicken, the director -- who acknowledges "the Bielskis weren't saints" -- thins out the herd mentality that heroes come only in one shape and ideologue.
And for a man familiar to portrayals of family -- Zwick's seminal TV effort was the award-winning drama "Family"; "Once and Again" functioned as the prototype series for dysfunctional blended families -- he has gone out on a limb in bringing the Bielskis from forest to foreign agents of change. Saints, no; sinners, yes, but then survival often doesn't depend on common courtesy in a world where curtains drawn aside reveal the devil in all his naked fire.
As we talk, it is obvious that family matters much to the Harvard grad who found himself at home in theater while at school before finding enlightenment in the darkness of the fade-in, fade-out field of film. "I've always tried to describe different kinds of families in my films," says Zwick, named after his zayde Itchky whom, in a New York Times article, the director described as "a tough Jew."
But Itchky's grandkid had an itch of his own, and it wasn't necessarily to make a Holocaust film. Indeed, relates Zwick, the wick he lit was a Jewish novena illuminating the beauty of film -- and making one about the Holocaust seemed a dim prospect in a room already crowded with kaddish candles.
Zwick concedes that he was a victim himself of victim mentality, that basing a book on Holocaust survivors seemed just another demonization of Jew as victim.
One difference, he discovered of the defiant Bielskis: "They fought back."
Tough guys don't daven? The Bielski Boys put a bullet in the head of that headline and, in so doing, shattered a myth while taking a shovel to a stereotype of Jews as weakened warriors -- which is one of the reasons the project appealed to him, says the director.
And in the battle to strip stereotypes from the pages of history books, Zwick found out that many other Jews were versed in heroics during the war. Indeed the "boys of striped pajamas" were of a different stripe than often characterized; giving out perhaps, but not giving in.
And in Defiance, introduced to him by a friend, Zwick discovered the spine that so many had taken for splintered when, in fact, it was ramrod straight.
"They went beyond being brothers. They formed a community, to battle back, to survive."
Battle back -- and impact forward: "This movie aspires to look backward and forward from the Holocaust. Back in that you see these groups forced to flee their lands to survive, with evocations of the Diaspora; forward, because genocides continue, and what felt as singular at the time persists today."
And how archetypes persist even now as Israel battles headlines of hate in attempting to make headway against Hamas. "The stories we are told," says Zwick of those tales of the doomed Jews of old, "were so wrong. That image of the Jew only as academic or entrepreneur ... it's the legacy of the Nazis' intent that lives on."
To life, to life ... l'challenge! He saw a way beyond the Warsaw Ghetto. "They [Jews] in fact did not shy away from" battling back.
Zwick brings the battle to the audience, shooting in Lithuania, just a twig's fall from the Belarus boundary, where the brothers braved the elements in their petrified forest of fierce resolve. "I can't help but have a personal reaction to this story," says the proudly Jewish filmmaker of how germane the tale is.
"I have made movies about Africans, Japanese ("The Last Samurai"), but not about Jews. I couldn't help but project myself into the story. There but for the accident of birth, go I." Would he have had the same courage under fire that the Bielskis evinced? "The answer to that can only be a wish that I would," says the director of "Courage Under Fire."
"I'd like to say I would, but such heroics don't come from a place of conscious thought."
It is his thought that the movie terrain is tattered with superheroes, men and women who look back not in anger but with daggers in their eyes -- and, literally, hands. The Bielskis, on the other hand, are not X-men, but those whose lives have been Xed-out, crossed off as insignificant. "They are ordinary heroes; they are unsophisticated, unprepared for what they found they must do."
The film gives them their due even as the brothers are the focal point of some smears from the Polish press. One recent report called the Bielskis killers cowering under the cloak of heroism. "That story came from a publication which is the voice of a very right-wing sentiment in Poland," Zwick acknowledges of the report in Gazeta Wyborczaghe, "and is the cloaked voice of anti-Semitism. That story has been completely debunked."
But does it devalue the Bielskis among those on whom myth takes advantage? "There is no source of truth for that report," says Zwick. It is said that God is in the details, but was He in the forest? "This was not a particularly religious group," says Zwick of the partisans.
But Zwick keeps the faith -- and rediscovered it. "This is my most personal film," he admits. "I found parts of my past; I know there were aspects of my grandparents in this story. The looks and the faces of the people I saw there [while shooting] were very familiar, they reminded me, echoes of my own history."
In a way, the sound and the fury haven't abated even as the dying off of survivors puts a brake on memory. But if the meter is still running on lessons to be learned, ironically, history flagged the late Tuvia Bielski himself. After war's end, the warrior immigrated to the United States, and receded from his ride to glory in the driver's seat of history to hack out a living as a taxi driver in New York, placing an "off-duty" sign on his signature heroics.
"I've met many people over the years, survivors, all loathe to talk about it," relates Zwick. "Maybe it's the trauma of the experience, but it seems that what they want now is this measure of anonymity, which may come from a reckoning of what they had to do during the war, wanting to put it behind them."
And this Friday, the screens scramble to re-open a path and pry back the past to unmask what is not a generally well-known, albeit important, part of partisan history -- depicting a people's defiance at death's door in a moment of history unhinged.