Roman Polanski’s latest feature film is a dramatic account of one man’s survival in wartime Warsaw. "The Pianist," which opens Dec. 27, is also a documentary in at least one respect: its star, Adrien Brody, nearly starved himself to portray the Jewish musician and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, shedding some 30 pounds from his already slender frame as filming progressed.
Such deprivation was crucial for capturing the physical appearance of a man who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and lived out the war in hiding. In a pivotal scene late in the film, an emaciated Szpilman plays a Chopin nocturne for the German officer who has discovered him. Brody’s skin is nearly translucent.
But the actor’s conditioning had a more profound effect on his ability to convey the unrelenting fear and hunger Szpilman described in his 1946 autobiography, "Death of a City."
"I’m living in that reality 17 hours a day, six days a week," Brody said in an interview, recalling his half-year of rigorous shooting in Germany and Poland. Polanski’s crew re-created the look and atmosphere of the ghetto, constructing walls covered in broken glass and barbed wire that passed through existing neighborhoods.
"When do I have the opportunity to let that go?" Brody asked.
The New York native says he was the only American on the set and spent much of his down time in isolation, often practicing on his keyboard for four hours a day in his trailer. "That was the only time [hunger] really was removed from my thoughts," Brody said.
Sitting in a suite at the Essex House Hotel, Brody is again recognizable as the intense 29-year-old actor last seen playing a photojournalist in Elie Chouraqui’s Bosnia war film "Harrison’s Flowers."
Brody’s 17-year career has been a veritable checklist of films by prestigious directors, including Spike Lee, Terrence Malick and Ken Loach. He starred in memorable Jewishly themed films such as Barry Levinson’s "Liberty Heights" and Steven Soderbergh’s "King of the Hill," his first major role.
Working with Polanski on the director’s most personal film has left Brody a more discerning actor and a changed man.
"I appreciate my own good fortune, our good fortune," he said, nibbling pineapple from a plate of fresh fruit. "Because there can be extreme sadness, extreme pain around the corner."
A straightforward story that reveals the moral ambiguities of life pushed to extremes, "The Pianist" won this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The 21/2-hour film has been praised for its verisimilitude in depicting Warsaw during the Nazi occupation and its devastation by the Germans, who leveled the city before retreating in January 1945. Polanski, who returned to film in Poland for the first time in 40 years, re-created the landscape and the ghetto scenes from memory.
Polanski, who is Jewish, was born in Paris to Polish parents and grew up in Poland. As a child, he survived the bombing of Warsaw and escaped the Krakow Ghetto. His mother was killed in Auschwitz.
After the war, a teenage Polanski acted in theater and radio, and appeared in several Polish feature films, including "A Generation" (1954) by Andrzej Wadja.
Much of Polanski’s directorial work, beginning with his acclaimed debut "Knife in Water" in 1962, has been charged with fear and suspense. Until now, however, the Paris-based filmmaker had avoided depictions of his real-life experience with those emotions.
Polanski has said that he tried to be truthful and "avoid Hollywood-style make-believe" in his film. But "The Pianist" can be viewed as part of a recent trend in American filmmaking that began in 1993 with Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of "Schindler’s List" and continued this fall with "The Grey Zone" by Tim Blake Nelson (who, coincidentally, acted with Brody in Malick’s "Thin Red Line"). These films unflinchingly portray the brutality of the Holocaust and the details of the killing process.
Significantly, with "The Pianist," Polanski is also taking his place in a line of Polish directors who engaged early on with the Holocaust in major films, says Stuart Liebman, chair of media studies at Queens College and a scholar of Holocaust films.
Among the Polish precursors who took up the horrors of wartime Poland in their work, Liebman noted the 1948 release "The Last Stop" by Wanda Jakubowska, a former political prisoner at Birkenau; "Border Street," Alexander Ford’s 1948 fictionalized look at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; and Wadja’s 1950s war trilogy.
"Polanski certainly had these in mind," said Liebman. "He had worked with Wadja, and Wadja worked with Ford. There’s a kind of family history there."
In a director’s note to "The Pianist," Polanski writes, "I always knew that one day I would make a film about this painful chapter in Polish history, but I did not want it to be based on my own life." As soon as he read the first chapter in Szpilman’s memoirs, however, he knew he had found his medium.
And when he saw Brody’s work, Polanski knew he had found an actor who could, in his words, "slip into the skin of the character as I imagined him."
By the age of 27, Szpilman was recognized as one of Poland’s foremost composers and concert pianists. He played live on Polish national radio, and was performing Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor when the Luftwaffe bombed the station on Sept. 23, 1939. After the war, Szpilman returned to the station and was named its musical director.
He returned to performing and composing music, including hundreds of pop songs and children’s tunes. Szpilman died in 2000 in Warsaw at the age of 88.
Szpilman’s autobiography, written immediately after the war, relates with remarkable objectivity the events from 1939 to 1945: his separation from his family, who were deported to Treblinka in 1942; the harsh conditions of work details in the ghetto; his protectors in the Polish underground; and his encounter with the Nazi captain who hid him during the war’s final days.
"There are decent Poles and evil Poles in his book, decent and evil Jews, decent and evil Germans," Polanski wrote.
Brody sees "The Pianist" as an important addition to the body of Holocaust films because of its individual focus.
"It’s not trying to be a history lesson," he said. Instead it is the story of "a very normal young man who’s robbed of everything and his struggle to maintain his dignity and hang on."
The son of a Jewish father (a history teacher) and a Hungarian-born mother (the photojournalist Sylvia Plachy), Brody says he knew a great deal about the Holocaust before Polanski chose him over 1,400 applicants to play Szpilman. "But knowing a lot does not prepare you," Brody said.
The cast and crew watched documentary footage of the war, and Brody studied the composers and musicians of the period to accurately represent their style and physical performance.
"I felt a closeness to the music, as opposed to just acting as if I were connected," said Brody, who has studied classical piano but prefers more contemporary styles.
Brody also modeled his performance on Polanski, who he said shared many of Szpilman’s traits.
"He’s wonderfully creative and open, with a curiosity about the world. And they both endured a great deal," Brody said.
Having emulated Szpilman, Brody said he understood the secret of the pianist’s survival.
"It’s a quality that a lot of people don’t possess, but you don’t know if you possess it until you are faced with extreme circumstances," he said. "You’re either a survivor or you’re not. And he was."