An accomplished, highly realistic docudrama, “Uprising” lands viewers in the Warsaw Ghetto of World War II, where a small group of Jewish resistance fighters took arms against the Nazis and achieved a moral, if not an actual, victory. It is a Holocaust story from a different angle, not the traditional depiction of a concentration camp or a rescue effort, and it unquestionably succeeds in documenting the heroism of those involved in this small but famous episode of history.
Directed by Jon Avnet (“Red Corner,” “Fried Green Tomatoes”) with genuine integrity, it’s the best of the multiple Holocaust-related telefilms to emerge post-“Schindler’s List,” and the only one that creates an atmosphere of gloom so thick that you get a sense of what it was like to be there.
Whether this is what people want to see right now is, of course, a whole other question, and one that can be answered only by the viewing public itself. This is not cheery, escapist fare, but a clear story of good vs. evil, something pundits claim folks will want. It also resonates with larger political connotations in the current climate, although few of them directly.
It contains a notably Zionist bent — some of the characters talk of moving to Palestine, and they display a Jewish flag in a feel-good moment of victory — and also takes on the issue of filmic propaganda, with Nazi documentarian Fritz Hippler (Cary Elwes) claiming he can make even defeat look like victory with the right camera angles. When the Nazis raze the ghetto in one of the very well-shot battle sequences, the rubble of the buildings looks eerily familiar and disturbingly contemporary.
What makes it particularly watchable, and memorable, is that Avnet breaks a lot of rules of network telepics.
“Uprising” notably lacks all those “act buttons,” the melodramatic moments, mini-cliffhangers, that lead up to the commercial breaks. The dramatic stakes are large enough here that Avnet knows he doesn’t need to pump them up, and his name cast, including David Schwimmer and Hank Azaria as the leaders of the ragtag forces, deliver passionate yet restrained performances.
The only misstep comes from the usually reliable Jon Voight, who plays the villain General Stroop as one big Nazi cliche, a grimacing, cold-blooded psychopath.
“Uprising” provides a very realistic depiction of wartime, beginning with the Nazi invasion of Poland and followed by starvation and overcrowded conditions in the ghetto, where 350,000 Jews were crammed into a small area of Warsaw.
We see the dilemmas confronting the political leadership, as the head of the Jewish Council, played by an excellent Donald Sutherland, argues that armed resistance would only cause harsh retaliation and the loss of even more innocent lives. When the deportations to Treblinka begin in earnest, the argument becomes moot. And after the fighters hold off the German troops for a month, the story becomes one of hiding and escape, taking us below ground into claustrophobic caverns and finally the sewers.
Every inch of the way, Benjamin Fernandez’s production design seems strikingly authentic. The film was shot in Slovakia by d.p. Denis Lenoir.
The screenplay, written by Avnet and Paul Brickman (“Risky Business”), tries to take on some larger philosophical questions — “Can a moral man maintain his moral code in an immoral world?” is a query that is asked repeatedly — but these seem tagged-on thematic excesses when what the characters are really confronting is a question of life and death.
Avnet and Brickman’s screenplay very effectively stays story-driven rather than character-driven. The negative side to this is that it can sometimes be difficult to keep all the supporting characters straight, played by an international array of young actors.
But, happily, we don’t get bombarded by sappy speeches about dearly departed loved ones, and this lack of sentimentality makes “Uprising” an especially admirable work.
Leelee Sobieski’s performance is the defining one here. Her character has difficulty laughing, is always ready to volunteer for an assignment, no matter how risky, and treats these life-and-death missions as if she were offering to do no more than set a dinner table. In her cold resolution, there’s a degree of honesty that’s unusual for this kind of telefilm.