The Pianist Interview

"If you continue to hate, you are entering into the same philosophy that began the war". Roman Polanski

Interview by Marilyn Cole Lownes

Time: Late Afternoon. Date: August 16, 1942. Place: the Umschlagplatz, a large compound and transit centre on the border of the Warsaw ghetto in Poland. The sun is shining incongruously on a chilling scene. A train stands waiting on a railway track. It is empty; its cattle-truck doors gape wide open, releasing the stench of chlorine that carries on even the slightest breeze.

Uniformed German SS men and Ukrainian military police stand in lines forming a pathway to the train. The menacing silence is broken by the creaking of the ghetto’s heavy wooden gates as they are slowly pushed open.

The Jewish police, the Ordnungsdienst, wearing their own street clothes, but also official blue and white caps and armbands indicating their special status, are the first to emerge from behind the 10ft-high brick wall, its top studded with broken glass and double strands of barbed wire.

The police herd a crowd of people out of the ghetto and towards the train. Hundreds of shabbily dressed men, women and children, many of them carrying small suitcases, cling together as they move forward. Some look anxious; others stare blankly ahead; a few weep openly. All wear a white armband stencilled with a blue Star of David. As mother’s weep and babies cry, the German soldiers use rifle butts to prod the crowd into the waiting, stifling boxcars.

“Cut!”
The man who called out that instruction is standing next to a movie camera. He is the film director Roman Polanski. The tension disappears; the crowd relaxes then cheers and applauds.

The crowd consists of some of the 1,200 extras working on this film, and a few recognisable actors, mostly British, including Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman.

Polanski has returned to his native Poland to make what many believe to be the most important and intensely personal film of his career, much of which has been overshadowed by sex charges in America. The film, which won him this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, is a cinema version of The Pianist, the memoirs of Wiadyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jewish musician who survived the Holocaust.

Szpilman’s extraordinary story was first published in 1946, a year after the war ended. He is played by the American actor Adrièn Brody, who had to get his weight down to 9st 91b for part of the shooting.

Szpilman describes the German occupation, the rounding up of the Jews, the horror of life in the Warsaw ghetto and the displacement to the concentration camps — events that led to the deaths of all of his family and most of his friends.
Szpilman survived by hiding among the ruins of the city and keeping a step ahead of the authorities. Nearly dead from starvation, he was saved near the end of the war by a German officer who gave him food and clothing. The officer, he later discovered, died in a Russian POW camp.

Polanski is unique among film directors in being able to relate personally to Szpilman’s experience. He saw it all, as a small boy in the Cracow ghetto. He was 12 at the end of the war, and he, too, survived the Holocaust.

Andrzej Szpilman, 45, the son of the author, recalls, “I remember my father saying, ‘No other director could make this film.’ While he will never see the finished product — he died last July, aged 89 — he met Roman several times and went to his rest certain that the end result would be absolutely perfect.”

Although Szpilman was 28 when war broke out in 1939 and Polanski was only six, both men shared the hardships of life in the ghetto, one in Warsaw and the other in Cracow. Szpilman saw his entire family being deported to the death camps at the same time as Polanski’s mother was taken away. Later, his sister and his grandmother were sent to Auschwitz.

While the German officer helped Szpilman to survive, it was Polanski’s father and a Polish family whom he had befriended that saved Polanski.

The Crakow ghetto was being methodically emptied by the German SS. On March 13, 1943, Polanksi’s father took him behind the SS guardhouse, where he snipped the barbed wire with a pair of pliers. He gave his son a quick hug before Polanski slipped through the gap and went to a nearby house owned by a family named Wilk. The Wilks had previously been paid by Roman’s father to take his boy if it should ever become necessary.

However, that day there was no one at home in the Wilks’ house. Desperate, Polanski ran back to the ghetto, only to see his father being marched off in a group of men by the SS.

Seeing his ten-year-old son in tears, Polanski’s father manoeuvred himself to get close enough to him to hiss, “Get away!”. Hearing his father’s words, he ran away, never looking back.

That evening, before curfew, the Wilk family came home to find the young Polanski waiting for them in the street. He stayed with the Wilks one night before being farmed out to several families in the Polish countryside until the end of the war. After the war, Polanski learnt that his mother had died in the gas chamber shortly after being taken from the ghetto. His father survived, working as a slave labourer in a stone quarry

Today, walking away from the set, Polanski’s stature alone sets him apart. His frame is small and youthfully trim, allowing him to wear slim black jeans with a razor-sharp blue denim jacket. Although he is now 68, his hair is still thick, his face tanned and taut.

Sitting down for lunch at a table outside his trailer, Polanski is enthusiastic and cheerful, and he grins as he says, “I’m still inside my budget.”
His voice is distinctive and rich, and slightly guttural. Even Professor Henry Higgins would have trouble pinpointing his accent, given his Polish childhood combined with decades in Los Angeles, London and Paris. Roman’s mood is infectious; everyone at the table looks happy.

As he tucks into cheese-filled pancakes, two of the female extras approach. Their admiration is tangible as they ask him to autograph their copies of the new edition of the book of The Pianist. He politely obliges and, as they walk away, turns to the others at the table to say, “It’s incredible, they feel that the film has a special importance to them, personally, and, while a few of them are, indeed, Jewish, all of them show this same feeling. I’ve never seen extras on a film like these people, they work with inexhaustible patience... never complain. No matter how many retakes I’ve got to do of any particular scene...”

Polanski refers to the harrowing deportation scene he has just finished shooting, “My mother was taken like that,” he says evenly. Asked how he felt about reliving such moments, he is philosophical, “Filming it is not so had in the sense that here we use actors, costumes, make-up and artefacts, but scripting it...! That was the worst. It was much harder for me writing these scenes because it unearthed so many feelings that I had forced myself to bury a long time ago.

“I remember after the war, my father and his friends ‘used to tell each other stories, and my father would show how he had to dig for stones in the quarry.” Polanski jumps up to demonstrate: “My father would keep looking over his shoulder, fearful that the German guard who stood behind him hitting him in the back with a stick would strike again. I used to hate to hear those stories. I often wonder if those blows to his back caused the cancer that killed him a few years ago.”

His voice trails off, but his mood brightens after he goes into the trailer and returns holding a photo. Proudly, he says, “This is my daughter, Morgan, she’s eight, and this is my son, Elvis, who’s three, and this, the old monkey, is me,” he laughs.

It is this photograph of Polanski as a devoted father sharing a playful moment with his children that suggests that it is only now that he could make such a film. This is the same man, after all, who turned down directing Schindler’s list; who said after a private advance screening of it, “I couldn’t have directed that film, set in the Cracow ghetto; it was just too close to home.”

Polanski’s experience as a father seems to have changed him. He and his wife, the French actress Emnanuelle Seigner, live in Paris with their children. They have been together since 1985, and she has starred in three Polanski films, Frantic, Bitter Moon and The Ninth Gate.

“With the passage of time and having children of my own, I see everything so differently. I see things through their eyes,” says Polanski, as he recalls his own childhood when he was forced to live with another family. “Although this lady was very kind to me; as a child all you really want is to be together with your own mother and father.

“Being without food or clothing, being cold; these things are all immaterial to a child. Being separated from your parents is intolerable. I recently read about a case in America where a mother was caught not wearing her seat belt while driving with two kids. Apparently, she had taken it so she could look for something she’d placed in the car, so the police took her away in handcuffs with her young children )looking on. Can you imagine? As a six year old child you would hate the police ever. The worst thing of all is to see your parents humiliated.”

Knowing that they had shot part of The Pianist on location in Berlin, how did he
feel filming there?

“Berlin was great,” he says. “It’s a new generation. If you continue to hate, you are entering into the same philosophy that began the war. You have to look forward at people and new times.”

“Roman is very strong,” says Gene Gutowski, the producer of The Pianist, whose history with Polanski began in 1964.

Gutowski sought out Polanski after seeing the director’s first film, Knife in the Water. “I saw in him an extraordinary talent and wanted to make films with him. I finally caught up with Roman at the Munich Film Festival, and that marked the beginning of a successful artistic and business relationship and a great personal friendship.

“We went on to make Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers.

After that we went on to do different things apart — up until now. I persisted in getting Roman to read The Pianist, and then Roman called me and said, ‘Yes, this is a great story let’s do it.”

After turning down an offer to direct Schindler’s List, why The Pianist?

Gutowski, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, says, “This particular book appealed to Roman because it is written with such immediacy and objectivity. The book is full of optimism, Szpilman doesn’t blame anyone. He’s simply saying, ‘That’s the way it was.’ I almost feel like Szpilman wrote it as though he was looking at it all through a camera, as though he were recording it and telling it as he saw it.

“In a way, I feel that writing the book was Szpilman’s way of putting the terrible war years behind him. He wrote this book right after the war. Then he carved out a career for himself as a songwriter, composer and concert artist. As well as being the director of music for Polish broadcasting, Szpilman travelled the world giving concerts right up until his death.”

Gutowski describes Polanski the family man, “He has matured, mellowed. He is not as impulsive or explosive as he was before. His kids come to visit him on the set; and when they’re not here he misses them. When he is directing a particularly difficult scene he asks that they be brought on to the set. He wants them near to him, and he explains what’s happening so that they know what their father is doing. He doesn’t protect them from scenes that might be cruel or depressing. He wants them to understand it all.”

The atmosphere on the set is disturbingly realistic, a result of Polanski’s passion for detail combined with the talent of the designer Allan Starski, who won an Oscar for his work on Schindler’s List, and Ann Sheppard, who did the costumes in Schindler’s List and The Insider. This team encouraged the French film company to guarantee financing for the project, even before Ronald Harwood and Polanski had completed the script.

“This is justified by Roman’s commitment and excruciating attention to detail in each composition of every frame,” says Timothy Burrill, one of the co-producers of The Pianist who has worked with Polanski on Macbeth, Tess and Bitter Moon. “Roman gives extraordinary care to the casting and insists on perfection in even the most minor prop.”

The message of The Pianist is one of forgiveness and hope. It is about the power and strength of one individual to survive. It is also about music and how it kept Szpilman alive during the war.

“There was one very moving, almost symbolic thing that Roman said,” says Gutowski: “It was during the projection of some really gruesome documentary films that the Germans had made for propaganda purposes. They had shot the film in the ghetto showing these horrible scenes of starving people. We had to look at these films before starting our picture to assure historical accuracy. We had three days of relentless screenings of this kind of footage. I remember at one particular moment in the screening room the lights suddenly went on and I saw that Roman was crying.

He said, ‘Only now that I am a father, that I have my own children, I realise fully what went on, the terrible horror of it all.”

And what does Polanski think his own father would feel about his son’s movie? “My father would be very proud,” he says wistfully.

After 40 years of filmmaking, in exile and in the shadow of the sex charges he fled America to avoid, he seems to have recovered a certain iconic status. Gene Gutowski says, “I see in Roman a great commitment and passionate involvement with this particular project. In part, that’s because it is so close to what he himself went through. And I also think Roman realises that, after all the pictures he has made, this may well be the most important film of his life, the one for which he will be most remembered and judged.

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