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Rallying the Resistance


Filmmaker Jon Avnet realizes "Uprising," his four-hour NBC movie about the Jewish resistance fighters who battled the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, will have a different effect on audiences because of the tragedy of Sept. 11.

"It's just a different world," says Avnet ("Up Close and Personal"), who, in addition to directing the historical drama, co-wrote it with Paul Brickman and was an executive producer.

"The primary reason I made this is the story moved me," he explains. "What moved me was that these people wanted to live with honor and, if need be, die with honor."

When he embarked on the project in 1994, Avnet felt that "our society was one that was devoid of honor in everyday life. It depressed me. I felt we were sort of drifting aimlessly in a moral vacuum. I felt that these [Jewish resistance fighters] and their story and their sacrifices and their will to live--their demand to live with dignity--really moved me. So when the events of 9-11 happened and you saw honor coming out of every pore in America, I was actually happy to see it.

"Sad that such a tragedy would have to be the catalyst to bring it out. When people see this movie now, it's going to be an unbelievably moving experience to see people with so little, fighting so hard. We all know we are fighting right now, and the fight is going to be really a tough and an ugly one. In the best of times and in the best of roles, films and the media not only serve as information, but inspiration."

Leelee Sobieski, Hank Azaria, David Schwimmer, Jon Voight, Donald Sutherland and Cary Elwes star in "Uprising," which can be seen Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. The story begins in 1939 when Nazi Germany invades Poland and orders that the 350,000 Warsaw Jews be forcibly moved into an area called the Warsaw Ghetto.

After watching his fellow Jews being forced into slave labor, deported to death camps and on the brink of starvation, teacher Mordechai Anielewicz (Azaria) decides that they must rise up against the Nazis. Without arms, food or communication with the outside world, Anielewicz enlists numerous Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants to his cause and creates the Jewish Fighting Organization.

Among the on-set advisors were two surviving freedom fighters, Simha "Kazik" Rotem, played by Stephen Moyer in the miniseries, and Marek Edelman, played by John Ales.

"Uprising" was shot over 72 days in Bratislava, Slovakia, in a reproduction of the Warsaw Ghetto the size of three football fields. "It was about four stories high, with hand-laid cobblestones," says Avnet. "It was an enormous undertaking. There were 128 actors, crew from 27 countries. We had thousands of extras at any given time."

Sobieski, who plays Tosia, a young woman who joins the resistance after her family is sent to the death camps, says that the re-creation of the Warsaw Ghetto was the most incredible set she's ever seen.

"When you bring people on the set, they don't know for one minute that it is inconceivable, [that] it's not real," she says, adding that the real Kazik told her it was so realistic he was able to locate where he used to live.

"Going onto the set in the morning, sometimes there would be corpses left on the street," Sobieski says. "They weren't real, but you would arrive and would go by them and it would always feel real.... Of course, there is no way you can feel as much as the people felt. There is no way you can possibly portray it to the degree that it was, but you try. Kazik said it is impossible to describe in human terms, an inhuman situation."

Azaria adds: "Having researched [the project] for so many months and to walk into a replica of the place was incredible, and very moving to me. The first image I had of the place was a bunch of Jewish extras being marched around by SS guards, which was a very haunting image--nothing was theatrical about it." Azaria says "Uprising" was one of the most emotionally and physically demanding roles he has undertaken. "The first couple of weeks I was really depressed and wrung out."

The actors formed a tight bond. "It was an intense bonding experience for the actors because of the subject matter," Sobieski explains. "Everybody wanted to get it right."


"Uprising" can be seen Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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