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A Minor Symphony

By: Paul ZimmermanAdrien Brody strikes a chord in Roman Polanski’s Holocaustdrama

Adrien Brody was missing. The 29-year-old actor had given up his New York City apartment and sold his car, and his friends were growing concerned because his phone numbers hadn’t been working for weeks. But the Summer of Sam and Liberty Heights star wasn’t behind bars or secretly in rehab–he was in self-imposed isolation, recuperating from the most intense acting experience of his career.

“I couldn’t have imagined how much work [would be] involved in this,” Brody says of his time shooting The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s harrowing tale of a World War II survivor. Based on the memoirs of concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who endured the Warsaw ghetto during its invasion by the Nazis and subsequent liberation by the Russians, the film is a grim, devastating epic, unadorned by any uplifting Spielberg-ian moments. Playing a man who’s starved, nearly killed time and again, and forced to witness innumerable atrocities, Brody understandably found the role hard to shake. “It took me months to reacclimate myself,” he says. “What I did to myself psychologically and physically to really nail it–I’d destroyed myself.”

Having beat out some 1,400 other contenders for the part, Brody traveled to Berlin to begin work on the six-month production. Whiletraining with a dialect coach and taking piano lessons, he also grew a beard and severely restricted his diet; because the film was shot in reverse order, his earliest scenes would have to show Szpilman in his most traumatized and emaciated state.

But through his suffering, Brody found a kindred spirit in acclaimed director Polanski (see “Roman’s Empire“), who as a child saw the Nazis bomb Warsaw and Kraków to the ground. “He has a fantastically dark sense of humor,” Brody says of the Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby auteur. “He’s full of one-liners. ‘Don’t be a pussy’ was a particular favorite.” An accomplished actor in his own right, Polanski would often push his star to his physical limits. “Roman was showing me how to climb over a roof,” says Brody, “and he did it like Harrison Ford could have. I was [down to] 140 pounds, and my ribs were completely bruised, but I couldn’t complain, because he did it. So when I tried it, I went face-first down the side of the ledge.”

The Pianist was greeted with a 20-minute standing ovation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, won the Palme d’Or, and will likely garner Oscar nominations as well, but it’s not the public accolades that concern Brody. “I went to Israel with Roman, from Holocaust museums to ghetto survivor centers,” he says, “and everyone had a story like this–everyone.” One audience member, he recalls, was particularly affected by a scene in which Szpilman rapturously devours a jar of rotten pickles: “She said she had lived off coffee–ate coffee grounds–for weeks.

“Roman shares a similar kind of strength with Szpilman,” he continues. “Szpilman, in his memoirs, had a great deal of detachment. I think it was very important for Roman to take that same approach [with the film], to work without sentimentality or blame.” Despite Polanski’sreputation for being a taskmaster on the set, Brody stops short of calling him a tyrant. “But you can say it,” he jokes. “I lived to tell the tale. And I’m still singing his praises. That says something.”