Uprising ★★½

The problem that any film made about the Nazi regime’s persecution of the Jews comes up against is the inevitable comparison with Steven Spielberg’s exceptional film of Schindler’s List. But although that film explored the myriad ways that persecuted Jews struggled for life, its central character was a Nazi who came to a moral decision the more immersed he became in the horrors around him. Uprising marks an earnest return to the era in the form of a lengthy television mini-series that was only briefly released into US cinemas. Sadly, this miniseries loses in the inevitable comparisons to Schindler’s List and makes a more suitable companion piece to the much earlier television mini-series Holocaust. However Uprising faces an additional context in that it was completed before the 9/11 events and now its story of armed resistance is inextricable from a new world focus. Indeed, the points that are made in this mini-series, all be they done rather bluntly and even obviously, have surprising resonance at times, contributing as they do to the debate surrounding the nature of the use of force, appeasement and the idea of resistance. Thus the miniseries is more intriguing for its reflection of attitudes than for its entertainment or historical authenticity.

Uprising is based on a true story. It recounts the process of Jewish resistance to the Nazi occupation, and in particular charts the Warsaw ghetto uprising, commonly cited as the single greatest instance of Jewish armed resistance. When the Nazis conquered Poland in 1939, they soon established a Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. A Jewish Council was created to liaison with the Germans and a Jewish police force established to ensure that German plans were adhered to and carried out. The doctrine of “collective responsibility” meant that all Jews would be held responsible for any actions of defiance, and the Council leader (played by Donald Sutherland) believed that co-operation and appeasement would serve the interests of his people better than the armed resistance urged by others (Hank Azaria as Resistance founder Mordechai Anielewicz, and David Schwimmer). However, once the real Nazi plans are discovered by the Resistance fighters and Sutherland commits suicide rather than further assist the German deportations, the armed Resistance begins in earnest, with a network extending beyond the ghetto barriers. As it continues, a new German commander (Jon Voight) is brought in to end the uprising, which has proven that the Nazis are not the superhuman force they believe they are. However, the German response decimates the Jewish ranks and drives the remainder underground into the tunnels and sewers.

The mini-series is filmed in a semi-documentary style that admirably stresses immediacy. It is event driven, chronicling the successive incidences that actually occurred, without excessive dramatic import. Indeed, that is perhaps where it falters most, and indeed flounders in the gap between docu and drama, feeling obvious and heavy-handed in its approach. That is not to undermine its earnestness or its validity, just to reveal its dramatic deficiency: it feels functional and makes Voight’s commander a too easy target for humiliation. Indeed, the film states its theme twice in the opening ten minutes, as if the viewer either missed it the first time, or couldn’t ascertain it for themselves – how can a moral man retain his moral code in an immoral world. Thus it contrasts Sutherland the appeaser with Azaria the forceful, and clearly reveals that true evil can never be peacefully appeased and must be resisted through the proper and just use of force – the film is thus about the need to resist the sadistic monstrosity found in humanity. There can be no negotiation with evil and the film clearly allies the notion of Jewish honour with that of armed resistance – passivity does not appease true evil under any circumstances. This message is of course paramount and the film uses the Jewish example to support it – indeed the message is taken as the clearest lesson of the period – and it is suggested that the only mistake was not to resist the Nazis with force earlier.

The true triumph of the will in Uprising is the determined and continued resistance, and the film delights in undermining the Nazi sense of sadistic pride. The imbalance in the battle of wills was aided by initial Jewish actions that were interpreted as a weakness to exploit by the Nazis. That is where Voight’s commander comes in, although he is never as forcefully characterized as was Ralph Fiennes’ Nazi in Schindler’s List. Indeed, Voight brings a buffoonish insecurity to the character and his scenes with the German propaganda filmmaker (Cary Elwes) are oddly comical – the people in this film, whatever their historical antecedents, are treated almost as caricatures, especially the Germans, and the film never explores the Nazis as more than sadistic thugs, thus achieving only a conventional opposition. Whilst this may be morally commendable, it makes for a rather stagnant drama. Even the film’s studied immediacy seems forced and staged, never fully as engaging as drama, better as a minor historical aid perhaps, a plot-driven recreated series of true events. The self-reflexive incorporation of German propaganda into the film also serves a blatant point: the point is valid but the treatment is familiar.