PASADENA, CALIF. — Familiar World War II stories are being revisited with such determination, both on the big and small screens, that it's easy to forget there are many lesser-known events during that bleak period to recount.
NBC's "Uprising," a four-hour miniseries airing on two consecutive Sunday nights (9-11 p.m.) beginning Nov. 4, details one of them: the resistance mounted inside the Warsaw ghetto by a minuscule but determined group of Polish Jews, who called themselves the Jewish Fighting Organization (JFO).
While the vast majority of ghetto occupants were either deported or killed in the final razing of the ghetto in April 1943, a small core continued the fight until the end of the war. The show focuses on the formation of the JFO.
"The story itself is incredibly compelling," says director Jon Avnet, who says he initially thought of the project as a feature film.
"Uprising" also questions why the Jews were labeled as passive.
"No other group of victims in a genocide were ever considered passive - Rwandans, Ethiopians, Cambodians, Serbs," Mr. Avnet says. "I don't know why that happened, either. But I think it's a travesty, sort of like the final nail in all of those coffins."
Based on the accounts of survivors, as well as historical documents created by the Nazis themselves, the fictional account has an almost documentary feel to it. This is intentional, Avnet says.
"It's really what happened," says the director, who is best known for box-office hits such as "Risky Business" and "Fried Green Tomatoes."
"We all feel on a certain level like we're messengers and just carrying the message. It's a lot easier to do that when you have something very real. These are the real characters, the real names. It's researched as meticulously as possible for a nondocumentary, and that's how it's shot."
The central ghetto was carefully recreated for the filming, down to the hand-laid cobblestone streets. While the performers say this helped their acting, it also brought the reality of the story home much more powerfully.
Hank Azaria portrays the leader of the JFO, Mordechai Anielewicz. He says his first day on the set was emotional. "A Slovakian local woman who was doing wardrobe came up and kind of pleasantly and politely put my [Jewish Star] armband on me. And I started to cry."
David Schwimmer, well-known as Ross on "Friends," portrays Yitzhak Zuckerman, first lieutenant to Azaria. "You did a certain amount of intense intellectual research, some emotional preparation for arriving on the set," he says. But that was nothing like being on the set itself. Clad in his wardrobe on his first day of work, Schwimmer found himself surrounded by extras. It was like being in another world, he says.
Several of the actual survivors portrayed in the miniseries visited the set. Israeli actress Mili Avital, who plays a girlfriend who dies in the Holocaust, says she took the opportunity to ask one of the male survivors about the relationship.
"I was ready for a whole tragic story, and he said, 'She was happy. We were happy. It was a happy thing,' " Ms. Avital recalls. "And I think it really helped us to just create something that is human, and also round and not one-dimensional."
While this is a Holocaust movie, Avital says, it's also a personal story.
"There are a lot of elements in it. The romance, even jokes; the fighting, the action; the adventure part of it. There are a lot of elements that make it a rich, rich story."