Uprising Against Evil

Hank Azaria (left) plays a Jewish teacher in Uprising, directed by Jon Avnet C’71. NBC Photo: Helene Waldner

It began as just another story, one of many Jon Avnet C’71 (Fried Green TomatoesUp Close and Personal, The Burning Bed) has brought to film and television, but somewhere in the seven years it took the producer to tell the World War II story of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and their battles against the Nazis, it became much more.

“It didn’t start out as a mission or crusade. I just sort of got hooked on it,” says Avnet of the work that went into Uprising, which aired in November on NBC.

The four-hour mini-series, which Avnet produced, directed, and co-wrote with Paul Brickman, starred David Schwimmer, Leelee Sobieski, Hank Azaria, Jon Voight, Donald Sutherland, and Mili Avital. Schwimmer and Azaria play teachers and best friends who are among the 350,000 Jews from Warsaw who in 1939 are moved into a cordoned-off area of the city, where the residents are forced into slave labor and face starvation and the threat of deportation to the death camps.

Their characters join the resistance, and it is that movement, and that concept, that Avnet finds so compelling.

“What is resistance? I have a gun to your head—what are you going to do? You want to commit an act of suicide immediately? What if you buy five days and keep your children alive for five days? What if you decide to walk to the train so you can feed them for two days? What if you educate your children into their religious upbringing? What if you try and create a moral climate in a completely amoral world? Is that resistance? To me, it is,” he says.

What angers Avnet is the impression that among the victims of genocide throughout history, only European Jews have been singled out as passive victims—an impression he hopes Uprising will challenge.

“Marek Edelman [one of the leaders of the Warsaw uprising], who is far more articulate and knowledgeable than I’ll ever be, said that for us it’s easier to see somebody with a gun in their hand firing because it makes us feel good, not because it’s any more noble than the mother caring for her child, hiding the child. And I think that by the time this movie’s life is over, people will actually judge the Holocaust and the issue of passivity differently,” he says. “I think that’s how powerful the medium of television and film can be.”

Ellen Gray

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