Best Book of the Year 2001 in
France - Journal "Lire"
The Guardian 22 June 2001
In the ghetto with Polanski
For his latest film, the
Chinatown director rebuilt the ruins of occupied Warsaw
in the Babelsberg studios in Berlin. Ronald Harwood,
who wrote the movie's screenplay, was with him
The moment a screenplay is finished,
the writer is detached from all that follows: the preparation,
the casting and finally the shooting of the film. You
do all that work, and then someone taps you on the shoulder
and says: "Excuse me, but I get to do the next
bit." That someone is, of course, the director.
Perverse as it may sound, the experience can be immensely
pleasurable, depending on who taps you on the shoulder.
When Roman Polanski did the tapping, I enjoyed it hugely.
Polanski telephoned me in the spring of 2000. He had
admired the Paris production of my play Taking Sides,
which has just been filmed by the great Hungarian director,
Istvan Szabo. He thought I might be the person to write
the screenplay of a book he wanted to make into a film.
The book is called The Pianist - a compelling account
by Wladyslaw Szpilman of his gruesome experiences in
the Warsaw ghetto, from which he managed to escape.
Once outside, he was sheltered by courageous Poles until
he was forced to fend for himself, suffering hunger
and illness. Then he was befriended by a German officer,
who brought him food and helped him to survive until
he was liberated. Szpilman died last year, aged 88.
I read his book in one sitting, telephoned Polanski
and said yes.
We met for the first time at his Paris apartment. I
was taken aback by his youthful appearance. He is 68
now, but still slim and energetic. He has been married
for nearly 20 years to the actress Emmanuelle Seigner,
and they have two children.
We became friends instantly. He is great fun to be
with, his energy is infectious and his changes of mood
electrifying. His impatience is alarming. He loves limericks,
the dirtier the better. We hardly mentioned The Pianist.
It was known that Polanski had turned down an offer
to direct Schindler's List, a film set in the Krakow
ghetto from which Polanski himself escaped at the age
of six. His parents and sister were taken off to the
camps. (His father and sister survived but not his mother.)
His reasons were that the events would have been too
close to him, the people too familiar. He had known
most of them and a few were still alive. But The Pianist
offered a means of expressing some of his own feelings
about his appalling childhood. He decided we should
go to Warsaw, mainly to look at the horrific archive
footage, and to inspect the place where the Jews were
On three successive days, we sat in a viewing theatre
to watch the grainy black- and-white record of the brutal
destruction of Warsaw's Jews. Then we were taken on
a tour of what had been the ghetto. Most of the area
has been turned into a park with a memorial. Only the
infamous hospital, where so many were slaughtered, remains,
and is now a school. It was a depressing few days. On
the way back to Paris, Polanski said: "Okay, start
The outstanding virtue of Szpilman's book is its amazing
objectivity. Polanski and I were determined to preserve
the author's approach. But we were also determined not
to use a voiceover, not to have Szpilman as narrator.
This, of course, presented problems. Szpilman is alone
for much of the story. He has no one to confide in.
So the emotional content had to emerge from the action.
When I delivered the screenplay, Polanski's reaction
was generous and enthusiastic. But he added ominously:
"You know what we do now? We lock ourselves up
for a month until we're totally happy."
He rented a large country house near Rambouillet. We
worked every day. We'd act out scenes aloud and when
he wasn't sure I understood exactly what he wanted,
he'd draw the location or the prop or the camera angle.
He is a gifted artist so his sketches were enormously
helpful. When I made a suggestion that wasn't to his
liking, he'd react as though I'd insulted his wife.
"You crazy? That's terrible!" he'd cry. "Let's
have a coffee." And when I suggested something
of which he approved, he would be equally extreme: "That's
great, my God, that's great. Let's have a coffee!"
We drank a lot of coffee.
Much of the time he was dredging his own memories for
details and incidents. There was one in particular I
remember. I had reproduced the moment in the book when
a Jewish policeman saves Szpilman from boarding a cattle
truck bound for Treblinka. He describes himself running
from the scene. "No!" Polanski said. "I'll
tell you what happened to me. It'll be better."
Apparently, he too was saved in a similar manner but
when he'd been pulled out from the crowd and started
to run, the policeman shouted: "Walk! Don't run!"
So we changed it. In the film Szpilman walks slowly
towards the gates while the Germans herd his family
and all the others into the trucks. It was a reality
I personally could not have invented.
Despite the subject matter we laughed a lot, making
dreadful jokes about Jews, Poles and Germans. It was
the only way to get through. A month to the day later,
we finished. Once back in Paris, he presented me with
a gift: an espresso coffee machine.
Because Szabo was still filming my play Taking Sides
at the Babelsberg studios in Berlin, Polanski was keen
to know what the facilities were like. He flew to Berlin
and came back bubbling with enthusiasm. "It's like
a Hollywood studio in the old days," he said. It
was decided to build streets and ruins on the back lot
at Babelsberg. The remainder of the film was to be shot
in Warsaw. But he still hadn't finished with me: "Let's
do a polish at my place in Ibiza."
Together with my wife, his children (Emmanuelle was
in a play in Paris), a friend and a couple of staff,
we flew to Ibiza where Polanski has built a villa. Here,
we did the final polish, changing a word here, a stage
direction there. It took a couple of days. During the
weeks that followed, I saw him in Paris, or he'd telephone
me in London. He'd still be bothered about the odd line
of dialogue and ask for a change, usually just one word.
And he was keen that I should visit him again. I guessed
another word needed changing, so I flew to Warsaw to
see him at work.
Checking in at an airport is an exhilarating experience
in comparison to watching a film being made. Only two
people know what's really going on - the director and
the lighting cameraman. There are endless periods when
nothing seems to be happening. Then, intense activity
as the actors are called for a shot that may last less
than a minute. Then another endless wait. For the onlooker,
it is exhausting. It was overcast so Polanski was obliged
to break off from filming outdoors to shoot a family
scene in a studio. Clearly invigorated by the process
of filming, Polanski is surprisingly calm and polite
throughout. Nevertheless, everything is charged with
urgency. He conducts the proceedings in Polish, English
The next day, the sun blazed down and he returned to
the Umschlagplatz - meaning "the place of deportation",
where the Jews of Warsaw were assembled before being
sent to their deaths at Treblinka. The reconstruction
of this dreadful place has been superbly achieved. A
thousand extras sat or stood about exactly as the Jews
did 60 years ago in unbearable heat with their star
of David armbands, suitcases and bundles. Polanski,
slightly hunched, eyes narrowed, darts purposefully
here and there, giving instructions, refining the action,
attending to the minutest details. Occasionally he mutters,
"I don't know how to do this," and then instantly
finds a solution with the help of his lighting cameraman,
But there is something surreal about the proceedings.
While the horror is being re-enacted, I sit under a
brightly-coloured parasol with the actors playing the
Szpilman family: Maureen Lipman, Frank Finlay, Ed Stoppard,
Julia Rayner and Katya Meyer. We chat about mutual friends
and British theatre. Adrien Brodie, who plays Szpilman,
says he wants to buy a cottage in upstate New York.
Then they are called on to play a short scene amid the
crowd. Suddenly they are in character, weighed down
by circumstance, taking direction from Polanski as he
gently guides their performances.
Polanski's gift is to tell the story without affectation
and without over-emphasis. His background is in the
theatre and so he respects the script, insisting on
the dialogue being spoken as written. He understands
the needs of actors. He is well read. His taste is not
of the what's-popular-now variety, but relies on values
that are older and unashamedly European. I look forward
to seeing the film. And I look forward to him tapping
me on the shoulder again at the critical moment.
Ronald Harwood's new play,
Mahler's Conversion, opens in London in September.