Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Called to Witness; the Pianist Won at Cannes, but Divided the Critics. Here, Its Screenwriter Defends the Film and Its Director, Roman Polanski

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Called to Witness; the Pianist Won at Cannes, but Divided the Critics. Here, Its Screenwriter Defends the Film and Its Director, Roman Polanski

Article excerpt

Byline: RONALD HARWOOD

ROMAN Polanski telephoned me from Paris in the spring of 2000.

He'd seen the French production of my play Taking Sides and thought I might be the right person to write a screenplay of a book called The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman.

The book arrived the next day. I read it in one sitting. It is without doubt the most original and extraordinary account of survival that I have seen.

Szpilman was a well-known Polish pianist before the Second World War.

After the German invasion he was, together with his family, herded into the Warsaw ghetto.

He describes the process of degradation, the hunger, the filth, the cruelty, the unbearable suffering. What makes his story so compelling and unusual is his point of view. It is as if he is writing about someone else.

Whether he is describing death or torture or the driving of the Jews into cattle trucks, he preserves his distance. He never confesses his own feelings, never once imparts his pain or despair. There is not a word of complaint in the entire book.

Szpilman is rescued from being sent to Treblinka by a Jewish policeman.

Somehow he survives and is for the most part a passive victim. Finally, near to starvation, he is saved by a German army officer.

The moment I finished reading, I called Polanski and told him I wanted very much to write the screenplay. We met in Paris where he lives and I have a flat.

We had never met before, but became friends at once and have remained so to this day.

At that first meeting we discussed how we should approach the film. We both agreed that our obligation was to be true to Szpilman's story and to preserve the coolness of his style. We were not going to employ a voiceover, nor was I going to introduce some sort of companion to whom the pianist could talk. We would witness events, as we do in the book, ruthlessly from Szpilman's point of view. We would invent only where the film demanded it.

I returned to London to begin work but for two weeks found myself unable to begin. I was nervous of having to keep my distance from events and people, something I have never had to do before in writing plays and novels. My instinct is to dramatise and here I was being asked to keep that instinct at bay.

Polanski called from time to time to find out how I was getting on. At first I lied, but then confessed.

"What do you mean, you can't begin?" he barked. "Just begin!"

So I did, and after two months the first draft was finished.

Polanski was suitably encouraging, but a film is the director's medium and his input in terms of what he wants to see, what he wants to shoot, is not just essential but obligatory. He decided that we should be ensconced in a house near Rambouillet, southwest of Paris, until the work was done. …

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