Maureen Lipman plays Wladyslaw Szpilman’s mother in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. It was a life-changing experience. Back in her home in London, Lipman explains why to Ori Golan.
Meeting veteran actress, performer and writer Maureen Lipman is like catching up with a long lost chum. The conversation flows, the anecdotes abound and the mood changes as one subject 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 Jewish piano player Wladyslaw Szpilman, based on Szpilman's memoirs, penned in 1946. Lipman 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 shortly after Germany’s invasion of Poland – life disintegrates in a brutal succession of calamities for Poland’s Jews. The film follows the decline of the Jewish community until it is sealed in inside Warsaw ghetto, which also seals its fate. Of the Szpilman family, only Wladyslaw lives to tell his tale. It is a tale of survival by an extraordinary combination of fame, help from unexpected quarters and random good fortune. After the war, he went on to become a world famous concert pianist. Lipman’s and Frank Finlay’s role as the parents, is executed with consummate skill, contributing to the film’s instant commercial success. It gained the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring for best picture, alongside two Bafta awards for best film and best directing, 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, alongside Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Roberto Benigni Life is Beautiful. But can humanity’s darkest chapter really be conveyed by a commercial medium fundamentally committed to entertaining a popcorn-munching audience? Lipman 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."
Actor Adrien Brody, who portrays Szpilman, was on his own for three months before the rest of the cast arrived on the set. 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 shelled out Warsaw, or shivering in bed, a shadow of his former self, wracked by disease and hunger.
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. 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. 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. 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.
"This is all conjecture you understand – possibly psycho-bubble – but I think there is something about the fact that he’s such a natural actor himself (Polansky escaped 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 what was going on.’
Asked if there any defining moments in the making of the film, Lipman immediately replies: "It was the moment I pictured my own son and daughter in the Umschlagplatz [the place from which the Jews were deported to the camps] and the scene where the father buys an overpriced piece of caramel with his last Zlotys and starts cutting it up into six equal 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 a sweet man. During the five weeks we were filming, we’d get together on Fridays with his wife in their hotel room to light Shabbat candles and have a bit of challah. When we were shooting the deportation scene, 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 the train doors were slammed shut.
This is not her only unscripted scream in the film.
In one particular scene, Nazi soldiers hurl an elderly wheelchair bound Jew through the window of an apartment because he didn't rise to salute them. Watching this ghastly scene from their living room, Szpilman's mother – Lipman - lets out a horror-stricken scream. "It was a totally spontaneous reaction. 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’. I was sure he’d edit it out, but gradually Polanski began to trust me and, although the scream wasn’t in the script, he went along with it."
During a free weekend, Lipman took a taxi and drove to 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 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 immeasurably."
Polanski chose not to turn The Pianist as a foreign-language film. The Polish Jews speak English, while the Germans speak German. Was it not inapt to have native Pols speaking English? Does it not strain credulity? "I don’t think so. If you’re making a £39M and you don’t have it in English, it may 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."
While The Pianist is a stark, sombre film, Lipman is mostly associated with humour. And she has a wicked sense of humour. In 1999, shortly before being awarded a CBE by the Queen, she told a reporter: "I am just praying my invitation to the Palace does not clash with a matinée performance, otherwise I'll have to pick up it when I next bump into Her Majesty in Sainsbury's."
There is not doubt about it: Lipman to drama is like fish to water: she’s made for it and it’s made for her. And the ease with which she plays her parts has made her a household name across Britain. She has played a whole host of characters, from a bag-lady, a lesbian, and Welsh girl; done everything from comedy, soap operas, theatre and musicals. And yet Lipman is still associated with the series of BT (British Telecom) commercials which cast her as Beatty – an overbearing Jewish grandmother on the telephone to her grandson. In one immortal clip the grandson has just taken his school exams and calls to tell her that he has failed all but one subject: sociology. "An ology !" she exclaims, "you’re a scientist!" The public loved it, and it stuck. In fact, the advertisements were so entertaining that BT was concerned that it was not getting the advertising message across.
Her husband Jack Rosenthal, who was also awarded this title, in 1993, is a prolific playwright, screenwriter and one of British television's most successful dramatis. He wrote the script to Yentl, starring Barbra Streisand, and co-scripted the animated film Chicken Run. She appears in a number of her husband’s plays and television productions, and has also appeared in a play written by her daughter, Amy.
And yet, despite the fame, the success and the accolades, Lipman is an unassuming actress who doesn’t put on airs and graces. She doesn’t try to cover up her Yorkshire accent which gives away her Hull roots, or hide her Jewishness. If anything she has used her public status to promote humanitarian causes; highlighting the plight of Agunot women in Britain, raising funds for children with AIDS, or as a patron of a number of charities. There is something captivating about this woman who wears her heart on her sleeve. Her emotional agility is astounding; she can move from irony to sadness to anger and then laughter in the space of a few minutes.
At 56, Lipman is still fighting fit. The Israel bashing is one thing that riles her. "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."
Does she voice her opinions in public?
"You bet. I am forever walking out of dinner parties, or being kicked by Jack under the table. What I cannot stand is the Gerald Kaufmans of this world [referring to Gerald Kaufman whose critical television documentary about Israel caused an outcry] 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 that is Lipman when she’s exasperated.