My Son the Oscar Contender


The applause went on and on for 20 minutes. It was a glittery audience, typical for a Cannes premiere. The actors and producers of The Pianist turned toward the crowd—in the center stood Roman Polanski and Adrien Brody, our son. Eventually the ovation turned to what in Hungary we call “iron clap,” an even, rhythmical, heavy beat, reminiscent of the sound of marching boots. It could wake the dead. (I believe it was made popular during Stalin’s reign.)

The film is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a classical pianist, about his improbable survival in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. Adrien plays Szpilman, and it is through his eyes that we witness the elimination of the Jews and the destruction of the city. All through the movie, I was in shock, quietly crying. My husband, Elliot, held his tears back, but when the credits started to roll and the audience stood to cheer, he could not contain himself. As Roman, Adrien, and the other cast members bowed, their images were projected on the giant screen. Adrien turned toward us and saw his father crying. His own eyes welled up. The audience caught the mood and the cry-in continued for some time.

This all happened on May 24, 2002, my birthday. What greater gift for a mother?

From the time he was born, Adrien was my favorite subject to photograph. I couldn’t take my eyes off him—his emotions were mirrored in his face. Later, he would come home from school and act out people he had met. He could remember what they said and how they said it; characters from the subway and the street would emerge in our living room. His professional life started with magic. He called himself The Amazing Adrien and performed at parties for children. His first role was on Off-Broadway when he was 13, in a play called Family Pride in the Fifties. That same year he played the lead in a PBS special, Home at Last. Since then he’s been in more than 20 movies, such as King of the Hill, Restaurant, The Thin Red Line, Liberty Heights, Summer of Sam, and Bread and Roses.

In Warsaw, during the filming of The Pianist in a dilapidated section of town, past collided with present and fiction mixed with truth. Adrien was surrounded by hundreds of extras, dressed in ragged pre-war style; and I watched, as if in a dream, my father appear in my son’s movements as he strolled through the ghetto wearing a suit and fedora.

The movie was shot back to front. The first time I visited him on set, it was in Berlin. He was frighteningly thin and had dark circles under his eyes. He had started his crash diet in Paris weeks earlier, sustaining himself on water, a few eggs, a little chicken, and the music of Chopin, which he practiced every day. He got no sympathy from Roman: “Did you eat anything today?” “I’d better not catch you eating anything.”

I’ve heard most of these stories before, but I love to hear him tell them again.

Tell me about the time you had to climb the wall. The wall: first scene. That was probably one of the most powerful moments for me. I had been locked up in a hotel room for six weeks practicing the piano and not eating. That week was the most disheveled I had to be. I showed up on the set and said to Roman, “Look, I have no energy, very little energy.” And he said, “What do you need energy for? You don’t need energy . . . just do it. Just do it!” They had this very complicated setup, a crane that had to pan at the same time with me. We had to do it a number of times and I was hardly able to get over the wall. I was shaking and convulsing. I wasn’t acting—it was me, because my muscles had vanished from that diet. It was cold. I was 130 pounds.

On the other side of the wall was the most desolate place that I’d ever seen. It wasn’t something that looked like a set—all the buildings had history because they were formerly Soviet barracks. Even though the scene was shot on my back, I cried, because I envisioned that place being my city. I felt really alone; it shook me. It was an incredible experience, something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. And I was thinking, “My God, I have six months ahead of me and I’m already so destroyed, barely able to get through the day: half a year more, six days a week.”

Was this the time Roman climbed over the wall himself? No, that was a little later. We’d been working together for almost a month. I had just awakened from a nap and Roman was standing there and the crew was ready: “OK, Adrien . . . Hurry . . . you climb up inside the building . . . I want you to hang out the window and they will shoot at you. I want you to slide down the building and grab onto the gutter and hang there and then fall. OK, now do it. Go, do it!” And I said: “Ah . . .”

I’ve been blown up before in movies: They totally blew my left ear out in Harrison’s Flowers. It still hurts—they forgot to give me earplugs. In Summer of Sam I had to smash a glass on my head. Spike [Lee] said, “Just do it, it’s candy glass.” I said, “Are you sure it will be all right?” and he said, “It’s candy glass!” and I smashed it and cut my head open. I know better now. I know it looks so glamorous, but they can destroy you in the movies.

So I said to Roman: “Has anyone tried this?” and he said, “Don’t be a pussy . . . you Hollywood actors . . . don’t be a pussy!” And he jumped up and said, “Huh, I’ll show you!” He runs into the building, jumps out the window, flies down like Harrison Ford, jumps off the ledge, jumps down in front of me, brushes himself off, and says, “There, somebody did it. Now, do it!”

Tell me about your trip to Auschwitz on your day off. It was probably more disturbing than had I gone on a random visit. I was so immersed in this part, in this history, my own connection to it, my own isolation. The horror of anyone living through that is still hard to imagine. I took some photographs, which probably helped me process it. I tried to make something creative instead of falling into it. In Harrison’s Flowers too, I noticed that the camera shielded me. In the war scenes, when you put the camera up to your eyes, it becomes something else, not your experience, but something you can reflect on later. It’s no longer something that exists within you, but it exists there, in a single image and you can store it.

What was it like seeing The Pianist for the first time? I had to loop in Paris. Roman showed it to me in a private screening room with a few sound engineers. Had they not been there, I probably would have stayed in that room a good hour and would have wept. The film was so subtle and unsentimental, so strong, that I was overwhelmed. I was eating my sweater to prevent myself from crying. At the end of the film, Roman turned to me, “Not bad, huh?”

Related article: J. Hoberman’s review of The Pianist