Polanski and "The Pianist"
Roman Polanski's desire to knit a theatrical quilt of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II would prove to be his most personal directorial tale to date --Polanski survived the horrors of the Krakow Ghetto during the same time period. For actor Adrien Brody, the role was also rich with pathos.
Morphing into Wladysaw Szpilman, the Polish Jew who just barely survived the Holocaust, left Brody with a list of factoids the media voraciously devoured: He shed 30 pounds from his already lean 160-pound 6-foot-something frame in just six weeks so that he could realistically portray the skeletal, emaciated Szpilman; the film was shot in reverse, meaning, the most harrowing moments of Szpilman's world-crashing-down-around-me survival went before the camera first; Brody decided to give up his New York apartment and other "luxuries" because he wanted to feel "deprived" -- all the better for him to effectively experience Szpilman's intense sense of loss.
"I didn't want to feel as if there was this home waiting for me," Brody says. When asked about the rigorous emotional battlefields he had to survive -- especially altering his physical appearance so dramatically -- Brody says that "the craving" wound up going beyond hunger.
"It opened up my thought process to being more receptive to loss and emptiness -- and not exclusively your own -- and therefore, I became much more open to these elements than I would have," Brody says. "It also forced me to conserve all energy unless I was doing something productive. There was no energy to waste on anything. You have to be strong enough to make it through a long workday with little in your energy reserves. I remember the first day we showed up on set. Since we shot in reverse, I had to be the most destroyed [emotionally].
"There's this scene where I am climbing over this wall and witnessing, essentially, my city's devastation. They (the film crew) recreated this entire city. They destroyed all these old Soviet barracks in Berlin and there was, as far as the eye could see, crumbling buildings and devastation. It had a tremendous impact on me -- not to mention the cold and the hunger and the weakness I was experiencing. I told Roman I have no energy ... and he said, 'What do you need energy for? Just do it!' And I had to just do it -- it was a very intricate shot with a crane and by the third time I had to get over this wall, I could barely get over the wall. Essentially, I am not acting. Perhaps that's what Roman wanted. It created such a reality for me that I was forced to experience it instead of really struggling."
"The Pianist," nominated for seven Oscars, is bold, raw and purposely to the point. It is devoid of the emotional symphonies Hollywood normally plays to manipulate audiences. If heartstrings are tugged, Polanski isn't necessarily doing the pulling. The director simply tells Szpilman's real-life story, staying true to the survivor's memoir, which was published after the war in 1946.
The film begins on Sept. 23, 1939, when Szpilman is performing a piano recital on Warsaw radio. Germany had already invaded Poland and Szpilman found himself stepping over corpses on his way to the studio. From there, it chronicles in vivid detail Szpilman's plight, starting with the relocation of his family to the Warsaw Ghetto. When Szpilman is spared by a Pole who became a Nazi sympathizer in order to survive, he watches his family and countless other Jews being forced into boxcars, destined for the death camps. Even here, Polanski doesn't over-dramatize, but perfectly assembles the issues matter-of-factly. As the film unfolds, it becomes more and more the story of one man's unbelievable survival than a statement on Nazi terror.
"This is far easier to relate to -- one individual's struggle and loss -- than trying to comprehend loss on an enormous scale," Brody says. "You witness this young, sensitive figure robbed of everything and yet he doesn't lose his dignity. There are long periods of silence in the film and that's not done often. I think it's a chance for an audience to reflect and to sit with it and digest it without having to keep up with snappy dialogue. You sit with it and you sit with the character and it provides you with a window into his world. You're kind of helpless and he is kind of helpless there. He is a pianist, not a soldier. There's only so much he can do."
This is a point of contention among some critics, who, while understanding the story is based on real life, feel Szpilman, who died in 2000, relied too heavily on the help of others.
"We were not there," Brody counters. 'We did not experience that level of fear. Unfortunately, there is this lingering perception that there was a tremendous amount of passivity with people, but the way things transpired made it impossible to foretell the outcome, because the way the Nazis were effective, was that everything came in small increments. It's pretty difficult to imagine for this to happen. In civilized Europe, people were integrated. It was beyond comprehension. As the Germans gained power, they would slowly take away rights, essentially making people have less and less control. Retaliating? There was only so much you could do, especially as an individual. I feel that the man did what he could do to cling to his life. He also managed to write a memoir within four years of living through the experience -- he doesn't recreate the events that happened to glorify who he is. He also doesn't include a sense of blame in his work or hatred. It's very simple and succinct."
Before shooting began, Brody he studied Szpilman's history and found himself experiencing a mix of emotions -- from passion to responsibility to join forces with Polanski.
"Obviously, this was one of the most personal stories somebody could tell," Brody says. "I knew this from Roman and I know of his experience, and it's easy to understand how personal this must have been for him. To be back in Poland and telling this story, which has a lot of parallels to his life, it was an opportunity for him to share something really personal without having to recreate his own history and run the risk of alerting his own memories, which I assume are quite sacred. Yet, he provided me with a closeness that no other director could have given me."
Brody reveals that Polanski is also a very "specific" director. "I accept that specificity because I know he knew elements of truth within this context which I do not know," Brody adds. "I embraced it. I also saw similar strengths within Roman that I felt my character possessed, because ultimately, this is a story of a survivor and Roman Polanski is one of the truest survivors I've ever encountered."
And then there's that question, the one Brody has been brooding over. How has he changed? Most obviously, an actor cannot go through a role as intense as this without emerging on the other side a changed man. So, what did Brody learn about himself?
"A lot," he finally admits. "It's hard to say what it was specifically [that changed] in me. I had to have a tremendous amount of strength, much more than I ever had to be called upon, and to apply it. I just realized how I have it [that strength] for the first time in my life. It's human nature for us to aspire to have more and be better people and be more successful, but this film made me so aware of how fortunate we are in America, and as young people in America, not to have had experienced this type of devastation and this kind of loss of freedom and rights, and this humiliation. This hasn't existed in my generation and it made me really appreciate and understand a level of sadness I didn't before. It made my life easier in a sense because I take less for granted. When something bad does happen to me these days, I try to put it in perspective immediately. It's affected me, sure, but I grew tremendously as an actor. It was like taking a master course in acting that I couldn't have paid for."
Greg Archer is editor of the Santa Cruz, Calif. newsweekly, Good Times.