Director: Jon Avnet | 153 minutes | drama, war | Actors: Leelee Sobieski, Hank Azaria, David Schwimmer, Jon Voight, Donald Sutherland, Stephen Moyer, Sadie Frost, Radha Mitchell, Mili Avital, Eric Lively, Alexandra Holden,
More films have been made about the Second World War than about any other historical theme. It is therefore strange that in almost all those films the Jews seem to accept their fate without actually resisting. Jon Avnet’s television film ‘Uprising’ (2001) finally shows that there were indeed groups of Jews who did not just accept their fate, but fought back, as best as they could. The film tells the true story of a group of Polish Jews who, from their hopeless position in the Warsaw ghetto, saw no other way out than to fight back. They would rather go down fighting than give in without resistance. The film begins in 1939, when the rights of the Jews are increasingly restricted. Poland only managed to resist for a month, after the Nazis invaded the country. The Polish Jews were doomed and were ‘parked’ in a cordoned-off area in Warsaw (the ghetto) before being transported to the concentration camps in the east (e.g. Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor) to meet their inevitable death.
Underground Jewish resistance grows as the fate of family, friends and acquaintances becomes clearer. In the more than two and a half hour long ‘Uprising’ the run-up to the actual resistance is stretched unnecessarily long. Not surprising that the first hour and a half of the film is a bit long-winded. The film has many characters and of course they all need to be introduced. It becomes much more interesting when the resistance actually takes shape and the movement led by Mordechaj Anielewicz, played by Hank Azaria, counteracts the Nazis. Weapons and explosives are smuggled into the ghetto and used in the fight for life and death. The settings don’t look bad at all and director and screenwriter Jon Avnet uses a lot of tricks to make the resistance actions look as spectacular as possible. But despite all the good intentions, it often looks a bit too clumsy to make an impression. Of course, the resistance acts of this group of Jews are heroic and it was about time that Hollywood – usually fond of heroic deeds and World War II – paid attention to this. But a story like this deserves a more effective approach.
Uprising comes a long way because of his good intentions. Especially the last hour of the film is fascinating and even exciting at times. The acting, just like the screenplay, which is not free of clichés, is somewhat changeable. Numerous familiar faces pass by. Where Leelee Sobieski, Stephen Moyer and Donald Sutherland distinguish themselves in a positive sense, Jon Voight and David Schwimmer deliver mediocre work. Whether that is due to their acting capacities or their barely explored (and in the case of Voight one-dimensional) characters, we leave it in the middle. As in so many American (war) films set overseas, all characters (be they Germans or Poles) speak English. In itself that is not even a problem, were it not for the fact that the actors in this film speak English with an indefinable Eastern European accent that regularly makes the toes arch. They also all look a little too ‘clean’, strong and well-fed to make it credible that they have been in hiding for a long time and are starving.
The resistance of the Jews to the Nazis has unfortunately been neglected. That Jon Avnet quotes it here is commendable. Unfortunately, the elaboration of the story is somewhat disappointing. The depth is lacking, the film is too long and the characters with their strange accents do not appeal enough to the imagination. The exciting last hour makes up for it, but it cannot take away the feeling of disappointment. The exploits of the Polish Jews who revolted against the German occupier deserves a better film than this.