"The Wall," tonight's CBS movie, was filmed in Poland many months before the imposition of martial law. It is the story of the 1943 Warsaw uprising, when Polish Jews, walled into a ghetto, fought back valiantly if hopelessly against the Nazis who were shipping thousands of them each week to concentration camps.
Many Polish names are listed in the technical credits for the three-hour film -- at 8 tonight on Channel 9 -- and many Poles were used as extras in what are, for television, unusually large-scale crowd scenes. The docudrama takes on an added irony with recent reports that the Soviets are now trying to spread anti-Semitism in Poland, where it has found a home before.
But ironies and good intentions aside, this Time-Life production has discomforting overtones of its own. Millard Lampell based the script on his obscure 1960 play which was taken from the book by John Hersey; in the film version Lampell and director Robert Markowitz have been careful to include scenes of terrible violence at regular intervals, as if to jolt viewers who might have been losing interest in a less-hysterical story of the Jewish underground and its growth.
Obviously, what the Nazis did was monstrous beyond imagination, much less depiction -- it is a subject that must continue to be brought up -- but on film, violence is a form of spectacle. And Markowitz has not been so imaginative that it becomes much else.
Early details in the film of ghetto life are movingly portrayed. Children offer smuggled butter for sale inside the ghetto walls; a man whose wife has contracted typhus and for whom there is no medication is urged by a doctor to take her home and pretend there is nothing wrong, lest the Germans send her off; German soldiers force Jews to pose for faked movies of happy ghetto life to be sent to the Red Cross.
But instead of using one or two acts of violence to symbolize the insane violence being done to a people, the filmmakers keep cutting away from short scenes of plot or character development and back to random horrors: An old man is machine-gunned in the street for bumping into a soldier; a crying mother and her baby are shot down in the street and killed; an entire group of Jews is massacred in the street while a screaming woman watches from a window and is then shot herself; another old man is shot in the back as are, later, three little boys caught smuggling potatoes.
There is nothing inventive here in the way this nightmare has been recreated; Lampell just wrote atrocities into the script at regular junctures. There is also a trace of the all-star ghetto syndrome; Eli Wallach appears very briefly as a callous father who deserts his family, and Rachel Roberts has a tiny cameo as a sympathetic Polish landlady.
Polish indifference to the plight of the Jews is dramatized minimally -- there are crass profiteers with whom the Jews must deal for arms and food -- but the Polish underground is represented by a stalwart soldier. Some '80s politics were at work in filming this story of the war-torn '40s.
The film is gripping much of the time. Actors Tom Conti and Lisa Eichhorn, who play the resistance leaders, only have short scenes in which to establish characters but they do so memorably -- Conti as the optimistic pragmatist with hope written all over his face, Eichhorn as the determined and unyielding soul of defiance and self-preservation.
The uprising itself erupts in the last hour, in lavishly staged scenes of combat. After that subsides, there is a tense sequence in which the Jewish survivors wait in a sewer for a truck to come by and pick them up. There are only a few of them, and there is a crying baby with them. What happens to silence the baby is a far more chilling statement on the human horror of this time, and the horror of which humans are capable, than all of the blood and violence that has so elaborately preceded it.