Maureen Lipman plays Wladyslaw Szpilman’s mother in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Off-stage she is just as dramatic, discovers Ori Golan.
Meeting veteran actress, performer and writer Maureen Lipman, 56, is like catching up with an old chum. The conversation flows, the anecdotes abound and the mood changes as one subject leads on to or merges with another. And when an expletive slips out every now and again, it doesn’t ring incongruous because it is common in conversations between chums.
Lipman currently stars in Roman Polanski’s latest film, The Pianist, which follows the dramatic story of Polish Jewish piano player Wladyslaw Szpilman, based on Szpilman's memoirs, penned in 1946. In it, she plays Wladyslaw’s mother; the linchpin keeping the family intact, struggling to put food on the table and putting on a brave face while all around them – in Poland of 1939 – life disintegrates, following Germany’s invasion of Poland. The change was immediate, dramatic and brutal, with one calamity following another. Restriction on all aspects of life are imposed on Jews and soon they are penned in abhorrent conditions inside Warsaw ghetto. Eventually, the Szpilman family, too, meets a calamitous fate and only Wladyslaw, by dint of his fame, and later pure chance, lives to tell his extraordinary tale of survival against all odds. Lipman’s a role, along side Wladyslaw’s father is executed with consummate skill, making the film an instant commercial success. It gained the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring for best picture and has been nominated for seven Oscars.
"I think The Pianist is a masterly piece of film-making and very important and timely one" says Lipman, "especially in the wake of holocaust revisionists. As for the film, the second time I saw it I liked it a lot more and in a year’s time I will enjoy it a great deal more. At first I didn’t think it would be a great commercial success, but it thrills me to the marrow that the world is going to see that film. This is a fantastic time to present the world with a film which says: this is how it was."
The Pianist is one of a number of films broaching the holocaust, often compared with Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Roberto Benini’s Life is Beautiful. But can humanity’s darkest chapter really be conveyed by a commercial medium fundamentally committed to entertaining a popcorn-munching audience? She shakes her head in disagreement. "Films are not just about entertainment, but also about enlightenment and I don’t think it matters if you’re eating popcorn or a bearskin rug, as long as you watch what’s on the screen."
The film was filmed backwards and the protagonist, actor Adrien Brody, was on his own for three months before the rest of the cast arrived on the set, filming the latter part of the pianist’s story. He was made to lose 14kg to prepare him for the scenes where he is ill, gaunt, haggard and thin. The result is some truly harrowing scenes of Szpilman scavenging feral-like for food in a shelled out Warsaw, or shivering in bed in his hideout, wracked by disease and a shadow of his former self.
What was it like working with Polansky? Lipman, who never appears to be at a loss for words, weighs her answer carefully.
"There is a manner in which he works…the man is quite exceptional. Fanatical, full of energy…mercurial. It was very pedantically rehearsed. He chose not only to make us look like a family, but he wanted to make us sound like a family. We were holed up in a hotel in Paris with a voice coach to make our accents and inflections all the same. What we got to is a flat delivery; a European English without upward inflection.
"I have something of a problem with authority at the best of times, and this took a bit of a leap. It was bleak, tough. You have to be what he wants you to be. It takes him a while to trust you as an actor. There was not a great deal of banter during the set. I am naturally an iconoclast and see humour in most things; I had to be slightly brought into line. And I had to win his trust. Polansky had never heard of me. "This is all conjecture you understand – possibly psycho-bubble. I think there is something about the fact that he’s such a natural actor himself (Polansky himself is a survivor of Krakow ghetto Polanski escaped the Krakow ghetto through a hole in a barbed-wire fence.) – so he doesn’t have any truck with acting you have to be what he wants you to be. After seeing the film a second time I wrote to Polansky to tell him ‘now I get it. I get was going on.’
Were there any defining moments? "It was the moment I saw my own son and daughter in the Umschlagplatz and the father buys an overpriced piece of caramel with his last Zlotys was cutting up a piece of caramel into six pieces. For me it symbolised hope. Family. It was like a Friday night dinner; it was all for one and one for all.
There was also that scene with Cyril Shaps who plays the old man in the Umschlagplatz. Cyril is an elderly, intellectual and sweet man and during the time we were filming, on Fridays we’d get together in his hotel room to light shabat candles and have a bit of challah. That day he was hauled from his armpits into the train about three or four times and I became completely hysterical about him. No body was taking care of him and I really feared for him. I started screaming as those train doors were shut.
This is not the only unscripted scream in the film.
In one particular scene, Nazi soldiers hurl an elderly wheelchair bound Jew through a high window because he didn't rise to salute them. Watching this ghastly scene from their living room window, Szpilman's mother – Lipman - lets out a horror-stricken scream. "We were prescribed in this movie. There was no room for manoeuvre; only ‘this is what you do and this is how you do it’. But gradually Polanski began to realise that I was a proper actress and although the scream wasn’t in the script - and I was sure he’d edit it out – he went along with it."
On a free weekend, Lipman decided to visit Krakow and Auschwitz. "That day in Auschwitz it really hit me. There was a particular room that was filled with brushes: hairbrushes, nail brushes, tooth brushes. There was something about that symbolism that completely devastated me. That moment, walking around and seeing all those brushes, suddenly a deep and enormous depression fell on me. I felt terrible; I walked around in abject silence." She is visibly very moved as she relives this experience. "The visit helped. It made me realise all sorts of things. Any sensitive person would have been moved, but as a Jewish person, it personalises the tragedy."
Polanski chose not to turn The Pianist as a foreign-language film; the Polish Jews speak English. The Germans, however, speak German. Was it not inapt to have native Pols speaking English? Does is not strains credulity? "I don’t think so. If you’re making a £39M and you don’t have it in English, it will be a big hit in Poland, but it wouldn’t be a big hit in Britain or America. You’ve got to have it in English if you’re dealing with an American or British audience. There may have been commercial considerations, but I don’t think it detracts from the film."
Lipman do drama is like water to a fish: she’s made for it and it’s made for her. "Acting is a job" she says blandly, "we have to earn a living – which is why you’ve had to get yourself up here to talk to me on a Sunday morning. I have long ago ceased to see acting as something that was going to bring me incredible joy." And yet the naturalness with which she plays her parts has made her a household name across Britain. She has done everything from one-woman comedy, soap operas, theatre, and TV adverts. Lipman will be forever associated with the BT – British Telecom - adverts in which she plays Beaty – a Yiddeshe mama character who holds imaginary telephone conversations with her imaginary family. In fact, at some point the public found the advertisements so entertaining that BT was genuinely concerned that it was not getting the advertising element across.
In 1999 she was awarded a CBE by the Queen. Her husband Jack Rosenthal, a playwright who wrote The Bar Mitzvah Boy and Yentl, was also presented with a CBE, in 1993.
And yet, despite the fame, the success and the accolades, she is unassuming and doesn’t put on airs and graces. She doesn’t try to cover up her northern accent which betrays her Hull roots or deny her Jewishness. If anything she has used her public status to promote liberal causes; highlighting the plight of Agunot women in Britain or raising awareness for the Jewish Aids Trust, or protesting against Burma. There is something captivating about this woman who wears her heart on her sleeve. And, at 56, Lipman is still fighting fit.
Israel bashing is one thing that gets her rag.
"All my life I have felt more English than Jewish; now I feel more Jewish than English. This is because of the anti-Israel bias – particularly amongst some of our own. I think there’s a double agenda, always, with Israel. I see straight through it; people are irrational in their criticism of Israel. The people who accuse Israel of aggression have no knowledge what it’s like to live under siege."
And she has no compunction voicing her opinions.
"I am forever walking out of dinner parties. What I cannot stand is the Gerald Kaufmans of this world [referring to Jewish MP Gerald Kaufman’s critical film about Israel] who stand up and deliberately show how impassive they are; how little their faith means to them; how cosmopolitan and free-thinking and liberal they are, so much so that they can criticise their own and make a television program about it. If you have nothing good to say and you’re a Jew, then shut up!" And this is Lipman when she is exasperated.