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Warsaw's Story Demands to Be Told--in Slovakia

Movies * Bringing the city's WWII ghetto uprising to the small screen hasn't been easy.

April 29, 2001|ELIZABETH JENSEN

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Across the road from the brand-new opera, a historic building on the banks of the Danube River has been converted into an unusual spectacle: a four-story replica of a portion of the Warsaw ghetto. It is late February and workers are finishing putting in a plaza and street of real, inches-thick cobblestones, the kind of detail that is affordable in such low-production-cost locales.

The story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising is a difficult one, at best.

In November 1940, all Jews in Warsaw were ordered by the city's Nazi occupiers to one neighborhood, which was cordoned off with a 10-foot-high wall. About 400,000 people were jammed inside, and an ever-dwindling number, those who weren't shipped off to concentration camps in regular roundups, eked out an existence there for more than two years in increasingly grim conditions of hunger and disease.

In January 1943, a small group of ghetto youths fired on German troops as they tried to carry out another deportation, setting the stage for future resistance. On April 19, 1943, as a day-early birthday present for Third Reich leader Adolf Hitler, the Nazis moved to liquidate the remaining 60,000 Jews, but some 700 people had organized by then. In an embarrassing surprise to the Germans, they were able to sustain a monthlong battle, before massive fires and overwhelming German firepower put a brutal end to their uprising.

It's not the stuff of your average TV movie, to say the least. But after years of trying to develop the project for a feature film, Jon Avnet persuaded NBC to make a four-hour version of "Uprising," which is now shooting in Bratislava and slated for a November airdate. It is one of the few TV movies next season likely to survive NBC's pullback from the genre.

Avnet, who has directed such feature films as "Fried Green Tomatoes" and produced such films as "Risky Business," has tackled tough subjects for television before: In 1984, he produced the pioneering, highly rated TV movie "The Burning Bed," starring Farrah Fawcett as a battered wife.

"Uprising," co-written by Avnet and Paul Brickman, is filled with music and sentimental images of feathers floating in air, from the pillows destroyed when the ghetto was emptied. But it is also grim, with orphans being trundled off on cattle cars, fire asphyxiating people in hiding and desperate struggles in the sewers under the ghetto.

Avnet says the movie "is about as factually accurate as one could do in a nondocumentary form." It's heady stuff for a TV movie that will have to grab viewer attention from what is sure to be lighter competing fare.

That's made all the more complicated by the fact that, aside from true-life resistance leader Mordechai Anielewicz (played by Hank Azaria of "Tuesdays With Morrie"), the focus is largely on an ensemble group of fighters, played by a cast that includes Leelee Sobieski ('Joan of Arc") and David Schwimmer ('Friends"). Donald Sutherland ('Ordinary People") plays the head of the Jewish Council, installed by the Germans to execute their decrees, who is stuck in the difficult position of deciding how much to resist and how much to play along.

It's a complex topic, but Avnet sees the film's message as essentially uplifting, a way to rectify what he feels is a preponderance of images that cast Jews, wrongly, as largely passive in the face of Nazi attacks. Not only is the Warsaw ghetto uprising "the major story of resistance during the Holocaust," he says, but through the film he is trying to explore "resistance on every level," from those who smuggled in guns to "the mother squirreling away food."

"Where did this moniker of passivity come from?" he asks, as he picks his way through the construction debris and points out locations for battle scenes. "Is it not defamatory? Is it not suggesting completely erroneously that these people had a hand in their own genocide, that they were capable of resisting against an armed machine?" He says he won't "purport to answer these questions, but I do purport to ask why and to reevaluate it."

Like many of those involved in ABC's production of "Anne Frank," Avnet says the recent mass killings in Rwanda and Bosnia take the topic out of the realm of history and make it relevant for today's world.

"I hope to make a great movie, one that gets outstanding numbers," he says. But provoking a debate on the issues, he says, "would be a positive outcome."

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