Polish-born DP Jerzy Zielinski, ASC returns to his homeland for a haunting tale of heroism under fire
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
—George Santayana, The Life of Reason (1905)
Philosopher George Santayana’s timeless insight into human nature is a compelling reason to tune in on the evening of April 19 when CBS Television airs The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, a Hallmark Hall of Fame Production. The telefilm takes audiences on a cinematic journey to Poland during the early 1940s where a courageous woman rescued approximately 2,500 children from becoming victims of the Holocaust.
Irena Sendler was a nurse in Warsaw when the German army invaded and occupied Poland in 1939. Some 380,000 of the 1.3 million people who lived in Warsaw were Jewish. The Nazis isolated them in a 10-square-mile ghetto surrounded by a brick wall topped with broken glass. Within a few months, an estimated 400,000 people were living on the edge of starvation in an area roughly the size of Central Park in Manhattan.
In July 1942, the Nazis began telling people in the ghetto that they would be taken to work camps. They were herded like cattle onto trains and hauled to Treblinka, a Nazi concentration camp in eastern Poland, where they were brutally murdered.
During the tragic events of the Holocaust, people the world over were either unaware or chose to look the other way. Irena Sendler was a notable exception. She was a 30-year-old mother with one child. Sendler’s job on an epidemic control unit enabled her to move freely in and out of the ghetto. She found ways to bring food to starving people behind the brick wall, an extraordinarily dangerous endeavor, and would later lead an effort to smuggle children out of the ghetto and find safe havens for them.
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler was produced by Jeff Most. Director John Kent Harrison co-authored the script with Larry Spagnola, which is a sadly accurate depiction of a dark side of history. Jerzy Zielinski, ASC embraced the opportunity to collaborate with them, bringing unique insights to the project. Zielinski was born and raised in northwestern Poland in a city where a shipyard was the main industry. His father and his wife’s parents were Holocaust survivors who were imprisoned at Auschwitz.
“My mother-in-law and father-in-law met and fell in love while they were prisoners at Auschwitz,” he says. “We didn’t have a clue about what they went through because they didn’t talk much about it.”
Zielinski has a natural instinct for telling stories with images. He began taking photographs when he was 10 years old, and was a dedicated movie fan during his youth.
“We mainly saw films from communist countries but every once in a while there was a Western movie,” he recalls. “We saw The Godfather because the authorities thought it was decadent. That’s how I was introduced to Gordon Willis (ASC) and other great cinematographers from the Western world.”
Zielinski studied cinematography at the National Film, Television and Theatre School at Lodz. “I thought it was fascinating that film speaks a common language everyone in the world can understand,” he recalls. “That’s especially true for cinematographers, because we are communicating with the audience nonverbally. There are no national borders if your language is light, darkness, camera angles, movement, composition and timing.”
About five years after Zielinski graduated, he lensed Aria for an Athlete, which was screened at festivals in Europe and won an award for cinematography. Subsequently, the British consul arranged for Zielinski to visit film studios in London, where he met producer David Puttnam and director Pat O’Connor. Later, he shot their film Cal, which was in the 1984 competition at Cannes. That led to opportunities for Zielinski to shoot other films in England. He moved to the United States in 1993, where his subsequent body of work includes some 30 narrative films, mostly for the cinema.
“I had heard about Irena Sendler but didn’t know her full story until I was contacted about shooting the film,” Zielinski says. “I had my first meeting with John (Kent Harrison) in January 2008. He told me that he didn’t want to make another epic Holocaust movie. He wanted to get inside of Irena’s head and tell a story about her and the children she saved. We discussed his vision for how to use images to tell that story.”
The project didn’t get a green light until the end of September. Zielinski observes that on a bigger budget film, they could have built convincing sets on a Hollywood lot. Instead, approximately 95 percent of The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler was produced at practical locations in Riga, Latvia, which was once part of Russia. It is now an independent nation and part of the European Union. The other 5 percent of the film was produced on makeshift stages in Riga, including one in an abandoned warehouse.
“There was a German influence on the architecture in Latvia,” Zielinski notes. “It’s not the same as Warsaw in the early 1940s but it was close enough. There are cobblestone streets and abandoned buildings where we filmed ghetto sequences.”
Anna Paquin was cast in the role of Irena Sendler, along with Marcia Gay Harden, who plays her mother, and Goran Visnjic. The rest of the cast came from England and Poland. Local people were extras, including children ranging from 4 to 14 years old.
During three weeks of preproduction, Zielinski and Harrison watched documentary footage that the Nazis shot in Warsaw. “It was painful to watch but it gave us a sense of what that world was like,” he says. “I also re-watched what Janusz Kaminski did on Schindler’s List. I think that’s when I realized I had license to use film noir lighting with hard shadows and hard light. People had lace curtains on windows in their homes. I planned to use hard light coming through the lace to create subtle patterns on faces.”
In addition to scouting locations and consulting with the production and costume designers, Zielinski and Harrison had to deal with the fact that there wasn’t a film infrastructure in Latvia. The cast, crew and everyone else behind the scenes came from other countries, including the U.S., Canada, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany and Poland.
“I had three people from the United States on my crew, first AC Mark Santoni, key grip Brian H. Reynolds and rigging grip Mark Smith,” Zielinski says. “My regular camera operators were busy on other projects, but friends told me about Marcus Pohlus, a fantastic Steadicam operator from Germany who worked on The Pianist.”
Zielinski covered scenes with two cameras most of the time because of the need for a lot of different camera angles and the tight schedule. Jeremi Prokopowicz from Poland handled the second camera. “There was an excellent production designer from Poland named Waldemar Kalinowski,” he continues. “The script supervisor was a Canadian and the makeup people were from England. It looked like a United Nations meeting. We were all worried that would create an impossible chaos. It wasn’t just language; people had different levels of experience as well, but everyone was inspired to work together and teach one another about how they worked in their different countries. We became a family. In the end, people were melancholy about leaving one another.”
They worked six days a week but Zielinski emphasizes that the hours weren’t “horrible,” because the producer and director were sensitive to the children. The ambitious script was wrapped around a 33-day production schedule, beginning in late November and running deep into December. Zielinski described the weather as miserable. It was cold with constant drizzles, harder rainfall and occasional snow. “We didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the rain to stop,” Zielinski says. “We had to finish before Christmas. Bad weather worked for the story. It visually punctuates the sense of hardship and despair, and it looks and feels very realistic.”
All of the camera, lighting gear, and the Hybrid and PeeWee dollies came from outside the country. Panavision in Warsaw provided two cameras with Platinum Panaflex and Millennium XL bodies, a set of Primo primes plus an 11:1 Primo zoom, and a 400 mm Nikkor telephoto lens. Heliograf, another Polish company, provided the lighting package, including two Mole-Richardson beam projectors which they bought for this project.
Some costumes were found in Latvia but most of them were brought in from Poland. Zielinski notes that they were made from an old fabric with a texture that looks right for the period and the story. Much of the furniture also came from Poland.
He reports that there was no time to shoot tests with different films and filters. Zielinski decided to limit his palette to KODAK VISION3 500T 5219 color negative, which he pushed one stop to add a little grittiness to the images, and composed in 16:9 aspect ratio. Technicolor in London developed the negative and provided dailies online and on DVDs. “I concentrated on lighting, pushing one stop and timing for a desaturated, high-contrast look. It’s kind of a monochromatic gray with hard, black shadows,” he explains.
“Irena (Paquin) is in almost every scene,” he continues. “She generally deals with the everyday realities of her life by restraining her emotions, except for a couple of scenes where she is overwhelmed, including one with her mother. The images are a reflection of how she sees the world.”
Harrison and Zielinski agreed upfront to keep the war in the background and to concentrate on telling the story from the characters’ perspectives. There are just occasional glimpses of explosions, people dying and other horrific things happening. “This was a crucial decision in terms of staging and use of film noir lighting,” Zielinski reveals. “In the beginning, I had to remind myself not to use soft light and not to make it beautiful. … There are scenes with multiple harsh shadows and contrast that look more believable for the place and time.”
As the story unfolds, Sendler and other characters are making difficult and sometimes seemingly impossible decisions, beginning with her convincing parents in the ghetto that the Nazis were intending to murder their children. They had to trust her to smuggle them out of harm’s way to safety. Sendler told the parents that their children would be taken to safe houses and taught to speak Polish and the fundamentals of Christianity in order to avoid suspicion if they were caught. Some didn’t believe her, and others wouldn’t part with their children.
The rescued children were hidden in convents and orphanages until they could be placed in homes. Families that agreed to take children from the ghetto into their homes were also risking their lives. Some of them were paid, and others had altruistic reasons. Either way, they were making a daunting decision that could cost them dearly.
Sendler smuggled children out in ambulances, through the sewer system and a courthouse that was located on the edge of the ghetto. The sewer sequences were the exception to the rule about shooting at practical locations. It was a set built in the warehouse. The only artificial light came through overhead ventilation openings built into the sewer set. Zielinski created slashes of light and shadows with apple crates on a stand in front of 2K Fresnels.
“I didn’t have any particular approach to lighting Anna,” he explains. “I watched rehearsals and followed my instincts. She had to be in the right place in the frame with the right contrast and angle for the environment and emotions. Her face and eyes were always important because they revealed Irena’s feelings. The camera angles were also important to support her performance in any given shot. We were making constant judgments about what worked with the dialog.
“There are times when you see Anna in silhouette,” Zielinski adds. “Other times she is lit in film noir style. Occasionally, harsh light coming through lace curtains in scenes filmed in old houses and apartments painted a pattern of shadows on her face. Sometimes we were behind her as she walked through the streets of the ghetto because we didn’t want the audience to see her face.”
In scenes where Harrison and Zielinski wanted a subjective look with deep depth of field, Zielinski used a Frazier lens. “I used a slant focus feature when we only wanted part of the frame in focus,” he says. “It’s a way of showing the audience how Irena subjectively sees the world and also an expression of her emotions. There is a scene in the ghetto when she realizes that people are being deported, and we used a slant focus lens to have part of her face in focus and the rest kind of fuzzy. It revealed her emotions at that moment without a word being said.”
In October 1943, Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo who tortured her, including breaking her legs and feet, but she refused to reveal names. She was sentenced to death but a Gestapo officer was bribed to set her free on the way to her execution. Some friends took her to a place in the countryside where she would be safe. Zielinski notes there were few farms and no city in sight. The location manager found a museum in the woods close to a little lake.
“I didn’t like that location when we scouted it but there was no other option,” he recalls. “It was snowing heavily when we arrived at night. There was about a foot on the ground when we were ready to shoot at daylight. Suddenly, the location I didn’t like was the perfect setting for that scene. It looked fantastic, so we had a little bit of luck.”
Zielinski adds, “This is a true story told in cinematic language about a remarkable human being, the people who helped her, and the children and their families. It also has a very dark side. If this was a fictional story, people would say it’s unbelievable. People don’t do things like Irena did because they want to live.”
And surely good deeds, in the case of this little-known heroine, were rewarded. Irena Sendler died last year in Warsaw. She was 98 years old.
By Bob Fisher. Photos by Erik Heinila.