30 March 2014

Polanski on the separation and abuse during the war

By Marianne Haslev Skånland


The original article was published in Norwegian on 2 May 2008. The Norwegian version can be found
on Forum Redd Våre Barn and on mhskanland.net.

I hope to be forgiven for the many long quotes from the dvd interviews. My intention has certainly not been to compete with the dvd or the film, but to stimulate people to see it for themselves. It is a gem.


The movie
The Pianist from 2002, filmed in Warsaw, was based on the autobiography of the Polish-Jewish musician Vladyslaw Szpilman. As a young adult he lived through the Nazi persecutions of the Jews in Warsaw.

The director is the well-known film-maker Roman Polanski. According to what we can read, he is an intricate personality with a complex life. What he relates about the movie, however, seems very realistic and genuine. And so does the film. Polanski's director of photography, Pawel Edelman, says: "We realised that it should be [a] quiet film, low key camera work, low key lighting ... .. Everything should be invisible. All techniques, all our tricks, we should forget. We should think rather about the person, characters, and we hide behind the characters."

Roman Polanski experienced much of the same as Szpilman. He too is a Polish Jew. He was born 20 years after Szpilman and was a child during the war. He managed to escape from the ghetto in Cracow, first to a family in town, then away to a peasant family in the country, where they lived in almost mediaeval fashion.

The DVD edition of the movie has valuable extra material both on the filming and the film's content, and about the way in which Polanski's own experience of the war has left its mark on the movie. His costume designer Anna Sheppard says: "Roman remembers. And he has [a] very particular image of certain things in his mind." Production designer Allan Starski: "My style – I always try to be very authentic but in this movie it is very specific because Roman remembers it and he really remembers them very good."

In a long interview Polanski and several other people working on the movie have interesting things to relate. Victims of 'child protection' having reflected on their families' lives under the child protection services (CPS) and on how the employees of this service behave, will probably see parallels. This is evident both regarding the ties between children and parents who are forced apart, regarding how the abusers capture their victims on film (cf the CPS's Marte Meo 'method'), how the collaborators and hangers-on of the CPS do anything at all to keep in with those in power. It concerns also what kind of people become abusers, it shows how important it is to expose concrete cases meticulously, and it concerns how one survives having been a victim of such cruelties.

The inserts in square brackets [ ] are mine, some of them concern speech which I have not been able to hear very well.



About the destruction by the Nazis of his family, Roman Polanski says:

"All my family was killed. My father survived, a very hard concentration camp, Mauthausen in Austria. I hardly talked to my father about these times but sometimes we would touch the subject, and what I got was:

The strength that helped him to survive is that he wanted to see me. He knew he had a child outside. And he wanted desperately to see Germany collapse. I was a kid and I wanted to live; I wanted to see my parents. Among all possible type of suffering the greatest was the separation from the parents. I think for the child this is the saddest and most tragic – I would say – thing. Lack of comfort, hunger, whatever – it's absolutely secondary. But longing to see my father walking in the snow towards me, that was the real sad thing. Wanting to see my mother, who was taken the first."

About the Nazis' own documentation of what they did:

"You study the films – the archives – and there are masses of them – the photographs. And this is very hard. And it's better to have someone with whom you want to go through all this mental or moral, or whatever you call it – psychological exercise. Ronnie Harwood [Polanski's script writer] is the perfect man for it. First of all he has a great sense of humour. And all I remember is that we used to laugh all the time. It was a great fun. [Possibly hysterical laughter? That is a not unusual reaction in ordinary cinema audiences when grotesque, tragic scenes are shown, e.g of emaciated concentration camp prisoners. MHS] But there were moments, you know, where either he or I had tears in our eyes, when we were really shaken.

An observation that I made going through this archive footage and through the photographs, in which you can see the most horrific things, is that when you watch it on the screen, you sometimes come out trembling, you forgot about one thing: that there must have been someone
behind the camera who was actually filming all this horror, photographing all this stuff. The people who are doing it were German Nazis. .... But even in this archive material we can see German units filming, so there must have been more than one. And they were doing it with – with gusto, with passion, or maybe they were doing it just cool, to record for their military purposes. It's difficult for me to understand but some of those scenes are even staged. They were actually recording their masterpiece."

About Jews used by the Nazis as tools against other Jews:

Gene Butowski, co-producer, says:
"What moved me terribly was the scene where the families are being herded off the Umschlagplatz and long lines of them packed into the crowded box-carts [?] to be taken to the gas-chambers. And the moving scene, the last looks. Of the father, of the mother, how they're being shoved in the [carriages] and beaten up, because I knew exactly that this is how my family went on. And I was really shaken up. It was so realistic, even the viciousness of the Jewish mitilia, who were so eager to help the Germans, because hoping to delay their own death, which in the end they didn't, but they were so eager to please the master the way they were beating up their own people and shoving and pushing them into [carriages] to please -."

About the Nazis, and about the actors playing the roles as German officers / Nazis:

"- - and then, at that screening I saw them again without all that garb, their hair, sometimes completely blond, dyed, with ear-rings, glasses, charming, intelligent, delightful people really, really nice people. And that was a shock to me, because I thought that those people that we saw during the war, performing the most despicable acts, could have been dressed and look like those actors whom I saw. It was some kind of realisation, you know, the realisation that anyone is capable of anything at a given time in history."

About the importance of recording individual cases meticulously:

Adrien Brody, playing the lead of Szpilman, says:
"What is wonderful about this story is that it's not – a [the ?] general perspective – of it, but it focuses on one man's struggle, on one man's strength through all that."

Life after the war:

About Szpilman's life Polanski says:
"It is very difficult to determine what makes a man survive murder. I suspect that music helped him tremendously, that the will to sit behind the piano again, in front of a huge theatre, was definitely [a] motive that helped him to survive.

Naturally, the closest to your heart are emotional ties with the close ones, with your family. And undoubtedly he hoped seeing them again even if he had been informed that they went to death. You don't believe it a hundred percent, there is always a little spark of hope. But having learned that his family is dead, what do you live for? You live for something which is your passion. And therefore I think that music played an enormous role in his survival."


Roman Polanski on "The Pianist"
Interview at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival
Film Scouts LLC

The Pianist - Wladyslaw Szpilman - Homepage

Roman Polanski: Der Pianist
(Filmkritik mit ausführlicher Inhaltsangabe und Rezension von Dieter Wunderlich)

Scene from the film:
Best Scene of The Pianist by Roman Polanski With Adrien Brody (HD)
Bechir Houman, on youtube, ca 2019