ROMAN POLANSKI AS A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR
The future iconic director came into the light to the world, riven by national tension, the aftermath of a devastation economical crisis and doubts towards collective security, the failed chance to ‘end all wars’, subsequent to the greatest of all. The peasants of Ukraine, metamorphosed into ‘war communism’, collectivization and now exposed to a mastered man-made famine, were gathering ‘The harvest of sorrow’ (as it would be named by a historian Robert conquest years later) with up to 4 millions of dead and 500 000 of unborn population. In Italy, the authority of ‘Casa Savoia’ (the royal dynasty of Savoy) was practically narrowed to a national symbol and a banquet hosts, all while the actual power over a state was put in hands of charismatic fascist leader Benito Mussolini. In Germany, the seven-months reign of chancellor Adolf Hitler brought the dissolution of Reichstag, the co-called ‘Law for the Protection of People and State’, the establishment of the Dachau concentration camp, the first boycotts of the Jewish business, the formation of the Gestapo, the infamous book burnings and the ban of any other political party except for the Nazi.
Raymond Polanski made his first breath on August 18, 1933, in Paris, France. His father Ryszard, a polish Jew has latterly changed his last name from Liebling to Polanski and his mother Bula already had a child of the first marriage, a girl named Annette. The born boy, a child in common, tightened the wedlock. The son Roman (Polish-style) was named Raymond after the manner of the French language and Polanski family would spend the first three years of his life in Paris. Never fully assimilated in a strange land, the father of a family (Ryszard) took his family to Krakow, his native town, and a residence of relatives and friends. Back in 1936, the decision (that would hold far-reaching consequences) sounded safe. Despite the mass emigration of the German Jews leaving the Third Reich and the evident red flags of the upcoming World War, Poland and Germany had ink on a non-aggression pact, theoretically valid until 1944.
For the first little while, Raymond had no more progress in assimilation in Krakow, than his father had previously experienced in Paris. The young Polanski stood out from the crowd of polish boys with his foreign accent, brittle body, and his blonde shoulder-long hair. As soon as the outbreak of the war in September 1939, Ryszard did not let the grass grow under one’s feet and moved his family to Warsaw, a city distanced more from the border with the aggressor. Had looked enough at the horrors of the air raids, the Polanski family made their way back to Krakow, initially to a grandmother’s flat in historically Jewish district of Kazimierz and later on, by a force decree, within the borders of the Krakow ghetto. The Polanski family were agnostics, yet under the same rule and humiliation obligations to wear a yellow armband with a ‘Star of David’. Sixty years later, the director would share his own story of making these bands with a number of failed attempts. Another realia of the ghetto, that Polanski would interpret in ‘The pianist’, is the erecting of the wall. A need to feel freedom and not to be bound with limitations would become Roman’s breath of life. In a pure artful sense, the future director would use to trick his audience with space and walls within the frames of his works.
In the teeth of temporal return to school and generally ‘normal’, yet constrained existence, Roman was now an eyewitness of a man-made dehumanization of the Jewish population at the hands of the occupational forces. The brick wall and physical separation from Krakow, the obligatory wearing of the armbands, a puppet-kind administration by ‘Judenrat’: all these were dramatically accompanied by acts of material humiliations. As a vivid example, the scene with Wladyslaw’s father and a German officer, who slapped the face of an elderly man, came from the memory of Polanski himself. In pretty the same way as the Jewish boys in a movie, young Roman did find a breach in a wall to conduct short-long, yet full of fear, outings beyond the ghetto. As early as 1942 his father Ryszard managed to arrange shelter for his son in the home of the WILK family. Young Roman would spend the days of the first mass round-up and mass deportations of the Krakow Jews to the Belzec death camp in June 1942. Roman’s mother was tragically among the victims of that mass action and years after the way it would be too painful for him to admit her death. Apart from the mass deportations of June 1942, the young Polanski would witness and wonderly evade another one. The polish man, assigned to deportations, led two boys (Roman and his friend) to go back home to take food. A moment after they rushed from the spot, he murmured ‘Don’t run’. This painful childhood memory would be later reflected in a movie adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s story.
As late as March 1943 the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto (depicted in iconic ‘Schindler’s List’) put another painful seal on the childhood of Roman Polanski. His father Ryszard assisted his son to break out the ghetto and later on, while the boy would notice his father within a column of rounded people, Ryszard would shout ‘get out of here’, thus saving Roman’s life. Ryszard Polanski survived the war, yet they would hardly ever discuss the war experience and the faith of the mother. To that moment in time, Roman lived under the last name of Wilk and even had a chance to watch public movies, yet the repertoire in the occupied Krakow had been reduced to German propaganda-like footage. Once changed the patronage of another polish family, Roman found himself in a rural area far from the city, being the fourth child of the Buchala family. As the war moved to the end, the young Polanski recognized the importance to come back to Krakow, a city of his childhood and his tragedy.
WARSAW AS A LOCATION
In the late 1990s, the world celebrated the ‘golden’ anniversary of the end of the Second World War, yet Roman Polanski, a prominent director, had not cinematographed a movie, which may be proudly inscribed within his grave-stone. The master of play used to find a few enthusiasm in shooting a story on the Holocaust, only Szpilman’s story embodied Polanski’s own survival experience as an artist in the thick of war. In wider means, the director took advantage of the adaptation to gain a cinematic resource for sharing his own emotional upheaval at best he could. It was also to become an emotional challenge for the filming crew and for leading man (Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman) to work with a man, who had experienced roughly the same survival story years before the most of them were born. Among other matters, Polanski had no necessity to come to the streets of Krakow (the main reason, why he had previously diverged from directing ‘Schindler’s List’, a story about Krakow ghetto). One of the formative ideas of a new production initially was to make the most of the exterior Warsaw locations.
Wladyslaw Szpilman parted from life on July 6, 2000, literally at the height of the production process, passing half a year shy of the start of shooting. The prominent Polish composer and pianist was anyway impressed with the scale of cinematic production with his own story at the heart of all. The joint Polish-British-French-American-German production amalgamated the efforts of hundreds of experts and actors. The shooting was planned to be held both in Poland and Germany and fated to be appreciated as one of the most ambitious motion picture works in Europe. The actual shooting broke in in Germany on February 19, 2001, within the pavilions of the world-known ‘Babelsberg studio’ in Potsdam, the centuries-old residence of the Prussian monarchy. The place is widely known in consequence of the July 1945 conference between the allies. The studio sets included almost every interior scene of the movie with the erection of a whole city district on top of that. Looking further forward, Szpilman’s ‘scenes from the windows’ of the second half of the story were mostly recreated far from Warsaw, on the set in Potsdam.
At the time, when the Potsdam plains resounded the blizzards of the tank and machine guns on the Babelsberg open-air set, Allan Starski, the chief stage designer, used to manage almost an everyday trip from Berlin to Warsaw. Hereaway, Starski (whose father once worked with Szpilman after the war) supervised the makeover of some of the Warsawian locations. A number of scenes were to be shot within the historical center, as well as in Kobylka, a suburb of Warsaw and the sadly remembered (due to the Warsaw Uprising massacre) Wola district. ‘Akademia Obrony Narodowej’ (National Defence University) within a distant Rembertow district (separate city until 1957) was to be staged as the ‘Umschlagplatz’. For all that, the PRAGA-POLNOC quarter anticipated the most ambitious makeover after weeks of shaping the image of the Warsaw ghetto. The scenery and prop department fulfilled a competitive task of creating hundreds of details of the war-time Warsaw, including street nameplates, wooden banisters, street lamp posts, elements for the interior scenes, costumes for actors, and hundreds of extras, even replica advertisements banners. The designer department examined close to any accessible archive footage and photos of the Warsaw ghetto and closely cooperated with the ‘Jewish Historical Institute’. The major shooting in Babelsberg studio was finalized as early as March 25 and the next four days witnessed a competitive migration of men and equipment. The primary work in Warsaw would take another eleven weeks until the very June 2001.
CAPRI CAFE (SASKI HOTEL)
Despite the conventional belief, far from every building of the historical center of Warsaw was devastated upon 1945 and a part of the pre-war architecture was later was repaired and renovated. The modern PLAC BANKOWY, to the West of ‘Ogrod Saski’ (The Saxon garden), could be regarded as one of the ‘housing survivors’. In contrast to the general desolation of the surrounding area, the survived triangular open space included: 1) The building of the Bank of Poland and the Stock Exchange; 2) The Treasury Ministry palace; 3) The Ministry of Industry and Trade 4) The former Kossecka tenement house. It was this, the fourth, one in the southern part of the square and facing the modern Elektoralna, to be chosen as one of ‘The Pianist’ movie filming locations. To be perfectly blunt, the architecturally sophisticated building of two-centuries history was praised only for the interior scenes, depicting the ‘CAPRI’ cafe, a workplace for Wladyslaw Szpilman unto to the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.
The decorated restaurant location occupies the frame sweetly, with the emphasis on the hands of the prominent pianist, who masterfully conduct the piano-keys of the ‘Steinway & Sons’. Wladyslaw makes eye-contact overtures to a young woman and later fulfill the caprice of some wealthy clients. In a scene, when his sister delivers the dismaying news, one could notice a banner with two men profiles and names: ‘Wladyslaw Szpilman / Andrzej Goldfeber’. The interior of the staged location, created under the careful supervision of Allan Starski, the set designer immortalized by his work on ‘Schindler’s List’, is unevidently full of such tiny historical details, rendering the associates with the occupied Warsaw. Szpilman would later come to find shelter inside the cafe in the height of the deportations to Treblinka and soon after the loss of the whole family. All while the movie takes the ‘CAPRI’ title, in actual fact the place refers to the image of the ‘SZTUKA’ cafe, the actual work seat of Wladyslaw Szpilman. It’s important to note, that the factual place was once located close to the filming site, across the spacious square on Leszno street and played its significant part within Szpilman’s memories.
After four months I moved on to another cafe, the Sztuka (Art), in Leszno Street. It was the biggest cafe in the ghetto and had artistic aspirations. Musical performances were held in its concert room. I appeared here myself playing piano duets with Andrzej Goldfeder. Besides the concert room, there was a bar where those who liked the food and drink better than the arts could get fine wines. I would really have enjoyed playing in the Sztuka since I met a great many friends there and could talk to them between performances.
Back in spring 2001, the filming crew had little difficulties coming to terms with the owners of the building at Plac Bankowy 1 in order to turn the first floor into a cafe dating back to the days of the Warsaw ghetto. The thing was, that at that moment (at the turn of the century) the fate of the two-centuries building was up in the air. Back in the 1820s, the whole surrounding area witnessed marked changes with the erection of a triangular square on the place of the previous Baroque palace. The governmental buildings were accompanied by a residential house, built for Barbara Kossecks and later named (the common practice) after the landowner. The building was slightly damaged during the first years of the war but would be burned out in the midst of the Warsaw uprising in August 1944. As the wooden beams (abutment of the floors) collapsed, no more than brick walls witnessed the end of the War. The renovation was put into operation soon after (in 1947) and finished upon 1950, reshaping the former residential house into ‘Saski Hotel’ (Saxon hotel, thus referring, as the neighborhood park, to the Saxon kings of Poland). Toward the end of the XX century, the hotel was already in semi-emergency state and closed down to be later (1997) sold to an Austrian estate company. It worth noting, that Allan Starski, a man who put his mastery into designing the scenes of ‘The Pianist’, would be (in 2004) hired as an architecture to repair the estate. The renovation process would last another eight years and cost 25 million polish zlotych to turn the building into an office estate.
WLADEK AND DOROTA (KOZIA STREET)
The cozy promenade-kind ‘Kozia’ street was another location within the city center of Warsaw, to be chosen as the location, where ‘the Pianist’ movie was filmed. The passage between Senatorska and Krakowskie Przedmieście played the background for Wladyslaw and Dorota’s walking within the first weeks of the German occupation. The design department did not switch the street nameplates as the Kozia street is not so different from the pre-war appearance. Their way to a desired cup of coffee is to be headed off with the humiliating ‘Zydom wstep wzbroniony’ (No entrance for Jews) sign. Dorota is a polish and she is filled with indignation towards such policy. The couple takes a minute at the cross of Kozia and Krakowskie Przedmieście and the horse-drawn cars on the background foster an illusion of the Warsaw of 1939. We could descry the green colors of the ‘Adam Mickiewicz’ square behind Dorota.
KOZIA street not only survived the devastations of the Second World War, yet its history dates back more than six centuries. As time went on towards the XVIII century, the place was put up with buildings we could still see today. At one period of time, the very district on the outskirts of the palace (to the West) was known for its brothels. As early as the mid-XIX century, the reputation of Lozia street improved to a degree to become one of the all-time favorite places to have a coffee in Warsaw. Speaking about the particular erections, the noticeable arch over the street (Wladyslaw and Dorota walk under it) was built on as a part of the ‘Hotel de Saxe’ (another reference to the Saxon Kings), the largest one in Warsaw in the middle of XIX century. The cafe, that was renamed (in the movie) to ‘PARADISO’ in a scene, actually known as ‘Telimenta’, is located within a residential house of 1836. It is of interest to note, that its foregoer, the ‘Brzezinska’ cafe, was one of the favorite leisure sited of Frederic Chopin. During its multi-century history, the street had switched a number of titles, from ‘Kozla’ to ‘Kozlow’ and to Junkierska (named after the neighboring school of military junkers) until the year 1919 and the attainment of the modern one. The area was badly damaged during the Second World War, but the majority of the building along Kozia was repaired, including the statue of Adam Mickiewicz within a park nearby.
GERMAN SOLDIERS (KRAKOWSKIEGO PRZEDMIEŚCIE)
Apart from the remarkable scene at Kozia street in the heart of Warsaw, the Krakowskie Przedmieście obtained another cinematic incarnation. Immediately following the news on Great Britain and France declared war against Germany, the Szpilman family are happy enough to satisfy a tableful until the next scene reveals the contrasting reality. Poland is now occupied and the German soldiers deliver the military march across the streets of Warsaw, a scene witnessed by Wladyslaw, his father, and brother Henryk. The experienced viewer should not be confused with the semi-devastated appearance of the buildings as these shots have proceeded to special effects. Along with that, the actual location of the scene is easy to be identified.
- We see the German soldiers, marching beside the body of a horse (faked) and a building with imposing entrance and a balcony. The very place is ‘The Secretariat of the Institute of European Studies’, put into a scene from the perspective of ‘Palac Staszica’.
- The camera focuses on Wladek, Henryk, and the father. We could easily recognize the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus in front of the same ‘Palac Staszica’. The background includes the semi-damaged (with the help of the post-computer work) building of ‘Mieszkanie Wokulskiego’.
- The next shot was taken from the perspective of the entrance to ‘Kościół Świętego Krzyża’ (The Holy Cross Church) and its famous statue of Christ and the stairs. The very statue of Copernicus is visible in the background.
PRAGA-POLNOC AND STALOWA STREET
In parallel with the building-up of the large-scale sceneries at the ‘Babelsberg studio’ in Potsdam and a quest of finding the ‘appropriate’ ruins for the final scenes (Szpilman finds himself within the devastated ghetto. The former military barracks were granted for cinematic use before the complete demolition), one of the Warsaw districts was to be makeover into a Warsaw ghetto of the 1940s. The written records on Praga-Polnoc as a settlement date back in the XV century. Five hundred years and a number of wars later, the now rejoined district of warsaw would be slightly damaged during the Second World War. Within the first weeks of war (September 1939), the area witnessed the battle for the city with little to no destruction. In the months, that followed, this every part of Warsaw on the Eastern bank of Vistula river, was even envisaged as an area for the Jewish ghetto (as we all know, was evaded from such fate). In the midst of the ‘Warsaw Uprising’ (August 1944) the streets of Praga witnessed some local fights, but the cut off insurgents was soon forced to evade the direct collisions. The coming of the Soviet troops and occupation of the district generally preserved it from devastation. It should be stated, that no less than 150 000 people among 180 000 of the ones, remained in Warsaw (had not been previously killed or deported) welcomed the end of the war within the Praga district. For once being the center of the post-war Warsaw, the old area would be later withdrawn to the shadows along with the restoration of the historical center of the city on the opposite bank of the Vistula river.
Praga-Polnoc area still includes the major share of the preserved pre-war buildings and STALOWA street was once destined to be transformed behind the cameras of ‘The Pianist’ movie. The main and the longest street of the district gained its nomination from the polish word ‘stal’ (steel) as far back in history as 1891. The steel factories (‘Stalowni Praskiej’ in particular) on this bank of Vistula had used to be among the suppliers for the well-known Trans-Siberian Railway. The area came into focus in the 1880s with the erection of the great share of the urban development, we can still appreciate today. The year 1894 witnessed the first horse-drawn tram as the electrified version some decades later. Stalowa street was historically appreciated as a heart of the area and desirable place of residence for the workers and the initial one-story erections were steadily replaced with the residential houses, as well as pavement originated from the first years of the XX century.
SCENE 1. One of the scenes brought in from the corners of the memory of Roman Polanski himself. Wladyslaw’s father is being slapped by a young German officer and forced to drop off the pavement into a mud. The scene was shot beside Stalowa 10 and 12, the street plates of which could be easily recognized. We should also pay attention to the Warsaw tram, which fills the scene with the additional historical dimensions of the era. The filming crew succeeded in obtaining four disused but live trams from the local tram depot. Its appearance was as authentic as possible, that the production design department did not need to ‘put years’ on the transport set to fit the 1940s.
SCENE 2. October 31, 1940. The dramatic perspective of the scene is being filled with the wobegon columns of the Jewish residents of Warsaw, who conduct their doomed cortege, similar to the well-known scene from the “Schindler’s List’. The Szpilman family is a part of this procession and Wladyslaw makes a few steps closer to his friend Dorota, who is frustrated to see all these. The production design crew filled the transformed area with the designed nameplates and commercial banners, ‘LEKI ZIOŁA KOSMETYKI’ for example.
SCENE 3. Another page of the dark history, which was recreated with photographic accuracy based on the preserved pictures of the Warsaw ghetto. The factual corner of Chlodna and Zelazna streets (within the actual ghetto) was built in (by the Germans) with the so-called ‘gates’, a transition from one part of the ghetto (known as ‘large ghetto) and the other one (known as ‘small ghetto’). We could see Wladyslaw and Henryk waiting for the lineup to cross the gates. The cinematic version was recreated on the corner of Stalowa and Konopacka streets in Praga. The one would notice a replica of the ghetto wall, lined aside Konopacka. The tram line (as it is today) goes along Stalowa street. The building behind the gate was accompanied by the ‘BARDLA WSZYSTKICH’ (Bar for everyone) sign.
SCENE 4. The sadly remembered overhead passage across the Chlodna street, widely known as ‘The bridge of sights’ was recreated at the very Stalowa street, at arm’s end from the crossroad of Stalowa and Konopacka and the ‘gates’ as well. The built-up wooden erection reflected the historical transfer between two parts of the Warsaw ghetto, the 52 stairs of which (on each side) once opened the panorama over the street between the ‘small’ and ‘big’ ghettos. The wooden bridge is depicted in a number of scenes in the movie. Henryk Szpilman collapses of exhaustion and later Wladyslaw would meet his friend and get acquainted with Majorek on the same bridge. In another memorable shot, the story gives us a glimpse of the german filming crew, capturing the daily life of the Warsaw ghetto. Roman Polanski once emphasized that he was once absorbed with an image of such cameramen, almost routinely doing his job as well as the other Germans.
SCENE 5. On the day of his escapade from the working camp, Wladyslaw makes his way to the given address and meets people, who assist him in accommodating ‘the Aryan’ side of Warsaw. Two men use the horse-drawn carriage to get to a temporary refugee. The former prominent pianist would have to spend a night in a concealed back room with legs tucked. On the morning of the next day, Wladyslaw played the role of ‘free and easy’ polish man, taking a tram. The scene was filmed at Stalowa 11.
At the times, when Stalowa street had already secured its place in the city plan of Warsaw, an unused plot of land to the South was still in the ownership of a local landlord. Soon after executing the agreement on cession, the rights to a city, this blind spot of the Praga area was destined to become a street. The real estate development of the place, initiated in 1880 was all but immediate and would last for another thirty years. Within this interval of time, this cozy narrow street with the self-explanatory name ‘MALA’ (Small) was with two, three, and later four-story residential buildings. The surrounding area was scarcely damaged in the years of the Second World War and the authentic historical appearance has been preserved upon the production of ‘The Pianist’ movie. Admittedly, a number of buildings have been restored for the mere of the last two decades. Back in the times of shooting, the filming crew was concerned with two major issues. On the one hand, they self-restricted themselves to the necessity not to produce inconveniences for the locals, with the erection of the replica ghetto wall within a narrow street in particular. On the other hand, Polanski would later acknowledge, that the neighborhood was inhabited with ‘hard-boiled’ people, which, indeed, made a little problem to the production, except for a couple of drunk men.
SCENE 1. The first sequences to be shot were focused on the scenes with the ghetto wall. We could see Wladyslaw walking along the wall and trying to save a little Jewish boy, beaten to death for his smuggling activity.
SCENE 2. In another memorable, yet sadly remembered scene, the protagonist Szpilman makes his way back to the ghetto soon after evading the fate of being deported to Treblinka. He is crying and completely devastated while walking across the left belongings. This perspective was shot near 10-12 Mala street in direction of the corner with Inzynierska. The building number 10 is the one with the open window shutters in a movie. Speaking on the changes, a spot of land covers the place of the wooden erection from the scene.
SCENE 3. A number of scenes depict the forced workers, rare survivors during the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, including Wladyslaw Szpilman. The movie reflects wooden gates (a means for the workers to be taken outside) and a section of the wall. These scenes were staged at the crossroad with another pocket-size street called Zaokopowa (behind the trench). The actual empty spot of land between the building of 8 and 10 was post-processed to add ruins of another construction. At the same time, Mala 6 is to be easily recognized within all scenes, including the one with the murder of the former Capri’s owner.
Another night scene depicts Jewish workers, who make their way beside the preserved section of the ghetto wall. In fact, the location is the same Mala street, yet the shots had been filmed early, in the early spring of 2001 before the demolition of the replica wall. In wider means, the same Mala street has been styled to fit a number of locations within the cinematic version of the ghetto in order to expand its maiden geography.