Using his Holocaust memories


The man escaping a roundup of Jews has his life saved with a warning: "Walk, don't run." A woman shot by Nazis collapses in a strange, contorted way. The windows of a house where a Polish Jew hides are draped totally in black paper to keep in every ray of light.

Director Roman Polanski, 69, doesn't like to talk publicly or even much privately about his experiences surviving the Holocaust as a boy in Poland. But his memory speaks volumes about it in the new movie, "The Pianist," a film ostensibly based on another man's life, the Polish Jewish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman.

It is Polanski who falls to show an extra how her body should twist as it hits the ground after being shot -- drawing on the memory he had of a dead woman in the snow long ago. "Walk, don't run" are his father's own words to him when as a scrawny, undersized kid he escapes a ghetto roundup to Auschwitz. It is Polanski who has his set designers cover the windows in black paper because that is what covered the windows of his childhood.

The film, which just began a limited release in the United States, is a powerful portrayal of one man's chance survival of the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto and of the random murders, daily demeaning brutality and unspeakable deprivation that took place. Some critics think it could widen an already unpredictable Oscar race.

The film, made in Poland and Germany, has already won the grand prize at Cannes and could make a star of its suffering hero, American actor Adrien Brody in the role of a lifetime. And it could revive Polanski's career as a major world filmmaker -- a career derailed by a sex scandal that ended with his fleeing the United States for Paris in 1977 rather than go to jail for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

Already, there are some in Hollywood wondering what the scene would be like if the movie won an Oscar and its maker, who is still barred from the United States, could not show up for fear he would be jailed.

"The Pianist" is the story of Warsaw radio pianist Szpilman, who was one of only 20 Jews to have survived the war in Warsaw. It is also the story of the indeterminate nature of survival and is based on Szpilman's 1946 memoir. The book was suppressed in Communist Poland because of its blunt portrayal of good and evil.

Key to the film's success is Brody, a 29-year-old American actor, who literally starved himself to perform the role.

"I felt a huge responsibility because of the nature of this film. Roman made me go through hunger. He insisted I lose a tremendous amount of weight so that we could film the hunger scenes first. I had six weeks to lose 30 pounds," said Brody, adding that was not all that he had given up -- to do the film he lost his Manhattan apartment, car and had a relationship crack up because never had he devoted himself so intensely to a role.

The hunger "provided a clear understanding of Szpilman's level of deprivation. Although mine was optional, it allowed me a way to connect with this man. It is amazing how much hunger affects you, how your mind starts operating beyond the craving for food," he said. "I felt an emptiness inside and saw the emptiness in the world. There are some people who say the character of Szpilman is too passive in the film, but in truth there was only so much he was able to do. He found a way to survive, he was not a fighter, not a soldier."

Besides Brody's performance, there is also a star turn by young German actor Thomas Kretschmann, who plays Wilm Hosenfeld, a German army captain who saved Szpilman's life in a chance encounter that becomes one of the key scenes in the film.

Like Brody, Kretschmann says that Polanski helped him immensely. "Polanski was a witness.... He stands for the victims.... He saw his mother taken away when he was age 8. We would sit and watch the rushes of the film and he would say, 'This happened to me,' like the scene when Szpilman avoids the roundup of Jews and is told 'Walk, don't run' to get away. That was told to him by his father. This film is his childhood memories."

Kretschmann added: "But if you ask Roman Polanski what the film is about, he will say, 'It is a film about hope.' Roman Polanski is a complex man."

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