Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer
What about the issue of suffering? Doesn’t this prove that there is no God and that we are on our own? Answer
Does God feel our pain? Answer
Did God make the world the way it is now? What kind of world would you create? Answer
Starring: LeeLee Sobieski, Hank Azaria, David Schwimmer, Donald Sutherland, Jon Voight, Stephen Moyer, Cary Elwes | Director: Jon Avnet | Producers: Jon Avnet, Raffaella De Laurentis, Hester Hargett, Marsha Oglesby, Lisa Lindstrom, Bill Haber | Screenwriters: Paul Brickman, Jon Avnet | Released By: Warner Bros. Home Video
I’ve been waiting a long time for a fact-based treatment of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it’s finally here. This film was shown as an NBC mini-series in the November 2001 “sweeps” and then immediately released on video.
Following the German capture of Poland in 1939, all 350,000 Jews in Warsaw are moved to one section of the city which eventually becomes a walled-off ghetto. Then the Jews are shipped off, by the trainload, to death camps. (The same process occurs throughout Poland and in other Nazi-occupied countries.) In Spring 1943, after most of the ghetto has already been liquidated, a group of young Jews decides to form a resistance fighter network and make the Nazis pay dearly for any further deportation attempts. They face unbelievable difficulties: little food; few weapons; discrimination from anti-Semitic elements in the Polish Home Army (the “regular” resistance organization); opposition from the Jewish puppet police and from nonviolent elements within the Jewish leadership. But they fight effectively, and their heroic stand creates a new sense of pride and helps reverse the longstanding practice of just taking injustice lying down. The Nazis, used to having everything their way, are startled and angered by this new development. Tiring of the booby traps and sniper attacks, General Stroop burns down the entire ghetto, and pumps poison gas into the sewer tunnels to prevent Jews from using them to escape to the “Aryan” side.
LeeLee Sobieski, Hank Azaria, David Schwimmer and others are all brilliant as resistance leaders. Notwithstanding his character on TV’s “Friends” and comic relief roles in movies like “Six Days, Seven Nights”, Schwimmer really is capable of serious drama. Jon Voight as General Stroop is not quite convincing, but OK. And Donald Sutherland’s detached-from-reality screen persona works well here, as he plays a Jewish leader who advocates compromise and nonviolence while his people are being wiped out.
Content Warnings: The entire subject matter is disturbing. There’s the onscreen violence, the starvation and disease, the implied killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and the Nazi doctrine that Jews are “subhuman.” There are some elements here that were never seen on broadcast TV until Steven Spielberg’s films “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” were run uncut; now, we get them even in a film that isn’t rated TV-MA. Brief nudity is shown (there are naked dead bodies in the streets; and captured female resistance fighters are immediately stripped lest they surprise their captors with hand grenades). And there are some profanities (a resistance fighter disguised in a Nazi uniform jokes “Heil S**tler”).
The most unsettling images may be those of Poles attending Mass on Easter morning and ignoring the smoke from the burning ghetto. Are they actually thankful to the Nazis for solving their “Jewish problem,” or are they just trying to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble themselves? Some of both, no doubt. In the book “The Bravest Battle” by Dan Kurzman, there are accounts of Poles on Easter Sunday lifting their children up so they could see over the ghetto wall and watch Jews leaping to their deaths from burning buildings. Also accounts of Jewish fighters who escaped the ghetto and joined the Home Army, only to be shot in the back by their “comrades.” But that book also contains the account of Capt. Henryk Iwanski, who led a Home Army unit through the sewers INTO the ghetto to fight alongside the Jews. Iwanski was wounded, and lost two brothers and two sons, in that action; meanwhile, his wife caught tuberculosis from a sick Jewish girl she was caring for. The old saying about 20% of the people doing 80% of the work comes to mind. But I digress…
Back to the film. I disagree with the policy change that allows material like this to be shown on broadcast, especially in an early-evening time slot. It may be for a good cause, but next thing we know Roger Corman and Paul Verhoeven will demand that their work be shown uncut too. However, for anyone of age and maturity to handle the content, I recommend the video as a way to make history come alive. If we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it.