Film utilizes newsreel footage to recount the Warsaw Uprising

Of the many films detailing the horrors of World War II, Warsaw Uprising, screening Sunday at the Claremont Film Festival, certainly rates as one the most innovative and heartbreaking of them all.

The film combines powerful footage of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising with a new, fictional audio storyline to create a hybrid documentary-narrative feature. The feat involved utilizing digital technology to add period-accurate color to the black-and-white archival footage. The film’s tagline, “87 Minutes of Truth,” could not be more accurate.

“We began with the coloring of several dozens of photographs, when we had realized that children do not understand that the world was not black-and-white in 1944,” said one of the film’s producers, Pawe? Ukielski, 40, deputy director of the Warsaw Rising Museum. “Then we decided to try to break this barrier.”

The Warsaw Uprising rebellion began on August 1, 1944 in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Poland, which pitted the wildly outmanned and outgunned Polish Home Army against the German war machine. The Polish had been systematically dehumanized, starved, enslaved and murdered over the previous five years of German occupation. Warsaw, once a bustling, vibrant “Paris of the East” and a capital city, was looted.

The Home Army command hoped to time the insurrection to coordinate with the massive Russian Army regiments assembling just outside Warsaw. The goal was to drive the Germans out of the city with the combined force of the two armies, but the Red Army failed to join in the fight, leaving Poland to go it alone. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, the Polish Home Army fought for 63 days before surrendering.

Reprisals were immediate and vicious. The Nazis sent thousands of survivors to death camps such as Auschwitz, and burned the Warsaw Ghetto to the ground. The Uprising, along with the subsequent Nazi revenge, took the lives of some 200,000 Polish. The Warsaw Uprising was the most significant effort undertaken by a European resistance movement in all of World War II.

The film, directed by Jan Komasa, was edited down from six hours of original silent footage shot by the Polish Home Army’s Bureau of Information and Propaganda.

Military, clothing and architecture experts were consulted. Polish historians were employed to recreate the look and feel of 1944 Warsaw as accurately as possible. And, because most of it was silent, the filmmakers hired expert lip-readers to discern what was being said in the then nearly 70-year-old footage. Finally, voice actors were brought in to dub in the newly transcribed dialogue.

“It was really astonishing for me, what happened with it after remastering and coloring,” Mr. Ukielski said. “The historical footage became much more realistic, ‘closer’ to the present times in some way.”

The original footage is combined with the fictional story of two filmmaker brothers, who are the main characters of the film. The brothers’ voices are heard, but they are not seen. The unique combination of an important historical document with an invented storyline had its obvious potential pitfalls. But the survivors who have viewed the film, Mr. Ukielski said, have been supportive.

“We consulted with them to get their opinion so we do not cross the thin line of what is acceptable for them and what is not,” he explained. “We got full support from their side for the movie, which meant a green light for us.”

Mr. Ukielski, whose grandfather was an officer in the Polish Home Army, was careful when asked if the film might serve as a caution flag against the recent rise of right wing extremism in Europe and the US. “Poland is the country that suffered the most due to totalitarianism,” he said. “Racial hatred, anti-Semitism or social engineering from both Nazism and communism had been affecting Poland for 50 years.”

During World War II, Poland lost approximately six million of its citizens, about three million Polish Jews and around the same number of ethnic Poles.

“I would be careful with any references to contemporary politics,” Mr. Ukielski cautioned. “It brings a lot of emotions, which make us exaggerate the criticism against political opponents. It is not only an American problem. In Poland, we have the same one when exaggerated labels are put on by opponents. On the one hand we have ‘fascists,’ on the other ‘communists,’ which distorts the meaning of words and depreciates real crimes committed by the real fascists, Nazists and communists.”

Mr. Ukielski remains skeptical about whether or not globalization and technology are effective deterrents against such evil growing again unchecked.

“Mankind could never claim it is immunized against evil,” he offered. “We cannot declare that genocide, ethnic cleansing or other crimes against humanity belong to the past only. In fact, such things still happen in different places of the world. In the 1990s it was Yugoslavia or Rwanda and, at the moment, we have a bloody war in Syria with the total destruction of Aleppo, which is often compared to Warsaw after the Rising. We have neo-imperialist tendencies in Putin’s Russia or extremely totalitarian North Korea. Could anyone seriously declare that total evil is not a danger anymore?”

Mr. Ukielski said he hopes Warsaw Uprising will raise awareness of extremism while acknowledging the specific heroism of the Polish people in the face of Nazi terror.

“There is definitely a need to tell about this experience all over the world, to warn against any totalitarian ideas,” Mr. Ukielski said. “I hope our movie is at least a small contribution.”

To learn more, visit Warsaw Uprising screens at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 21 at the Laemmle, 450 W. Second St. Tickets and information are at

—Mick Rhodes


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