Edward Zwick is not the most subtle of directors, but he sure knows how to do action and specialises in what many would see as “tough” topics. His most recent film Defiance documents Jewish resistance to the Holocaust, telling the true story of the Bielski brothers in Belorussia, who led a large band of Jewish refugees in the forests, saving more than 1000 people. It has just been released (April 30, 2009) in Australia. Inexplicably, this was more than two months after its original planned release date in February: the postponement came so late that a lot of reviews of the film were actually published in February, and viewers had to wait until late April to see the film – strange.
I am a great fan of Zwick, who was the co-creator (with Marshall Herskovitz) of that wonderful television series thirtysomething, which amongst other things, added a new word to idiomatic English language, i.e. “____something”, as in “twentysomething”, etc. In that series was Michael Steadman (played by Ken Olin), in which they created an amalgam character: the mensch-like modern Jewish man married to the non-Jewish woman, and never quite comfortable with it. But never SO uncomfortable that he attempts to do much about it. The Jewish assimilation story was a great – and long-running – theme in the television series, although just one of many that people of my generation (and many younger as well) found so captivating.
So witness what Zwick has done since thirtysomething finished its run in 1991: Aside from Defiance, he has directed Blood Diamond (2006), The Last Samurai (2003), The Siege (1998) – which chillingly foreshadowed anti-Muslim prejudice in the USA post-9/11, Courage Under Fire (1996), Legends of the Fall (1994). Back in the 1980s, he also directed Glory (1989) – about African-American soldiers in the Civil War (giving him a good taste of battle scenes, later put to good use) and About Last Night (1986). See any patterns here? War, battles, that sort of thing. Pretty far from thirtysomething angst, no?
And now Defiance. There may be a heavy hand (and some particularly clunky scenes, particularly at the beginning) behind lots of the elements of this film, but let’s categorise some of the good stuff: Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber are very powerful actors and never less than captivating on screen. The story itself – Jewish resistance – is so rarely shown in the great number (literally hundreds) of Holocaust films that it makes you wonder why not. I have racked my brain on this, and the only Holocaust resistance films which I can remember seeing are The Wall and Escape From Sobibor – and both of these were TV movies without, as far as I know, cinema releases. And Zwick and his coscreenwriter Clayton Frohman do illustrate one of the key points as to why the Bielski brothers were successful in their resistance and so many were not: relatively uneducated, they were used to fighting, to weapons and to surviving in the forest. They were not afraid to kill. And, of course, there was a deep forest to retreat to, which was not the case in so much of Europe where Jews were persecuted.
Then there’s the language, which Defiance does particularly well. How do you accurately portray characters who should be speaking Yiddish, Russian, German and other languages? You can do the Valkeryie approach (the recent Tom Cruise film), and have the characters speak German for a few minutes before switching to English … so you get the idea. Or you can have everyone simply speak English – such as in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, with all the issues that arise – such as just who is speaking what language when? Or you can just let a cacaphony of accents happen (as in ).
But Defiance took a different – and I think very clever – approach. The Jews – who were on screen the majority of the time – spoke English, albeit with a sort of Yiddish/Russian accent. And everyone else spoke their real languages: the Russians spoke Russian, and the Germans spoke German. When the Jews communicated with the Russians, they spoke Russian. So you knew who was speaking what when. And they avoided the whole issue of having to do it ALL in non-English languages. And all power to Craig and Schrieber for the good-sounding Russian they spoke.
Footnote about Schrieber: Three years ago I found myself in a lift (elevator) with Liev Schrieber and someone else in a New York City hotel. He is a big man, and was wearing a beautiful and lovely smelling pink (yes, pink) leather jacket. I thought to myself “that’s Liev Schrieber”, except here’s the thing: he was speaking fluent German to the other man in the lift. It was Schrieber, who – it turned out – was starring in a play around the corner from the hotel. A man and actor for all seasons. I may have under-rated him some years ago, but his continuing ability to inhabit a range of interesting characters makes him a true leading man for the second decade of this century.