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Interview: Ed Zwick

By SHAULA CLARK  |  January 19, 2009

Thematically, this must have been an intensely personal movie for you to film.
You know, obviously, as a kid growing up, one's relationship to the Holocaust is very particular if you had any family that might have been lost or you knew families or people who were survivors, and I had all those various coordinates. But also the movie asks, in its implicit way: What would you do if you were there, and who would you be there? And it also meditates on the nature of leadership and what that means. So it's one thing to read about the Holocaust, and it's quite another to go to the places and feel its magnitude. It's very hard to wrap your mind around that intellectually.

The film sets up a few paradoxes, but what was really interesting to me was how these people need to rebel in order to survive, and yet they need to follow a leader in order to survive, or else their community will collapse.
Mmm-hmm. And they have to become rougher and more violent, even as they are the victims of violence.

Yeah, that scene where the German guard is brought into the Bielskis' camp [and is brutally beaten by the Jewish refugees] — on the one hand, it feels so justified, and on the other hand, you can see a bit of the people's humanity just falling away.
That's right.

It actually had a veryLord of the Flies vibe to me in some ways.
That's funny. You know, someone else said that. I don't really remember the movie, although I think Peter Brook directed it, didn't he? Maybe. But I was actually remembering a Shirley Jackson short story called "The Lottery."

When you think about Holocaust movies, it's always that the subject of endurance is being explored, and this facet of it — of the resistance of the Jews — seems so swept under the rug.
Oh, yeah. I mean, I think it's convenient to oversimplify. We do that so often in culture anyway — we do it about people, we do it about institutions, and we do it about history. To say, "Oh the Jews went quietly, they were a monolithic group who just did this." Well, there was a certain amount of that, but that belies the circumstances of their lives. It belies the fact that they were stateless, that they had no access to weapons, that the local police were collaborators, that there was a systemic, brilliantly orchestrated policy of extermination that included psychological torture, you know — there's that. But also, even that being said, there was so much resistance, but history has chosen to not celebrate that aspect of it, because the scale of the other thing that happened is so immense.

And it doesn't fit into the narrative?
Because it doesn't fit into the narrative nicely, and those who survived, I think, were very reluctant to tell their stories — whether that's survivor's guilt, or even reluctant people who did things that they had to do that they were not particularly proud of.

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