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Tuesday, 02 June 2009 13:00

Behind the Scenes of The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler

Written by  Bob Fisher
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The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, a faithful depiction of the heroic deeds of a Polish nurse,  was produced in Riga, Latvia, during the middle of winter. Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski, ASC tersely describes the weather as “miserable...”

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is a faithful depiction of the heroic deeds of a Polish nurse who rescued more than 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto before they became victims of the Holocaust during World War II.

The Hallmark Hall of Fame movie was produced in Riga, Latvia, during the middle of winter. Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski, ASC tersely describes the weather as “miserable.” He pauses and amplifies, “It was cold with constant drizzles, harder rainfall, occasional snow and about 20 hours of darkness every day.”

Riga is an 800-year-old city on the Baltic seacoast that was part of Russia until it became an independent nation and joined the European Union. “Riga isn’t an exact match for Warsaw during the early 1940s, but it was close enough,” Zielinski says. “There are cobblestone streets and abandoned buildings where we filmed ghetto sequences and scenes in Warsaw. We shot about 95 percent of the film at practical locations. The few sets were in an abandoned warehouse and places like that.”

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler was produced by Jeff Most and directed by John Kent Harrison, who also co-authored the script. Zielinski embraced the opportunity to collaborate with them. The story has special meaning for him. Zielinski was born and raised in Poland. His father and his wife’s parents were Holocaust survivors who were imprisoned at Auschwitz.

“I had heard about Irena Sendler but didn’t know her full story until I was contacted about shooting the film,” Zielinski recalls. “I had my first meeting with John (Kent Harrison) in January 2008. 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, the children she saved and their families. It’s an inspiring story about good people in bad times.”

The project got a green light in September 2008. During their earliest discussions, Zielinski and Harrison agreed to produce the film in 35 mm format composed in 16:9 aspect ratio. Zielinski says that they needed the latitude that film offers to record a naturalistic look with details in the darkest shadows and brightest highlights. They also decided to keep the war in the background and concentrate on the characters with just glimpses of explosions, people dying and other horrific things happening.

There is no filmmaking infrastructure in Latvia. The main cast and crew, camera, lighting, grip and other gear came from other countries. Anna Paquin was cast in the role of Irena Sendler. She, Marcia Gay Harden, who plays her mother, and Goran Visnjic came from the United States. Other actors came from England and Poland with local people, including children, ranging in ages from four to 14 years old, recruited as extras.

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 as sense of what that world was like,” Zielinski says. “I also re-watched what Janusz Kaminski did on Schindler’s List. That’s when I realized I had license to use film noir lighting with hard shadows and hard light. People in Poland during that period had lace curtains on windows in their homes. I planned to use hard light coming through the lace to create subtle patterns on faces.”

Zielinski and Harrison consulted with the production and costume designers to discuss ideas for augmenting a sense of time and place. Some costumes were found in Latvia. Most of them were brought from Poland. Zielinski notes that costumes were made from an old fabric with a texture which looks right for the period and the story. Much of the furniture also came from Poland.

 Zielinski arranged to bring crewmembers from Canada, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, and first AC Mark Santoni, key grip Brian H. Reynolds and rigging grip Mark Smith from the United States. His regular camera operators were busy, but friends told him about Marcus Pohlus, a Steadicam operator from Germany, who worked on The Pianist. Jeremi Prokopowicz, “a terrific operator” from Poland handled the second camera. 

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, and Hybrid and PeeWee dollies.

Zielinski says there wasn’t time to shoot tests with different films and filters. He relied on his instincts and experience and decided to limit his palette to KODAK VISION3 5219 color negative, a 500-speed film that he pushed one stop to add a little grittiness to the images. “That gave us the freedom to work in just about any lighting environment, and the right look for the story.”

Technicolor in London provided dailies both online and in DVD format.

The story: Sendler was a 31-year-old nurse with a young child when the German army overran 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. Around 400,000 people were living on the edge of starvation in an area that was an approximate equivalent of Central Park in Manhattan.

In July 1942, the Nazis began telling people in the ghetto that they were being taken to work camps. The real destination was Treblinka, a concentration camp in eastern Poland where they were brutally murdered.

Zegota was the code name for the Council to Aid Jews that was organized by patriots in the Polish underground in October 1942. Sendler was the director of the children’s section. She obtained a pass from the Epidemic Control Department of the local government which enabled her to freely move into and out of the ghetto.

Sendler smuggled food, money, medicine and clothing into the ghetto, but 5,000 people a month were dying of diseases and hunger, and countless others were being shipped to Treblinka. She felt responsible for saving as many children as possible. It began with convincing parents that the Nazis were intending to murder their children. Some people didn’t believe her, and others wouldn’t part with their children.

“Irena (Paquin) is in almost every scene,” Zielinski says. “She generally deals with the everyday realities of her life by restraining her emotions, except for a couple of scenes where she is overwhelmed. The images are a reflection of how she sees the world.”

Children were smuggled out in ambulances, through the sewer system and a courthouse located on the edge of the ghetto. The children were taken to safe houses and taught to speak Polish and the fundamentals of Christianity to avoid suspicion if they were caught. They were hidden in convents and orphanages until Sendler and her colleagues could find homes for them. Families that agreed to take them into their homes were risking their lives. Some of them were paid and others had altruistic reasons.

There was a 33-day production schedule, beginning in late November and running deep into December. Zielinski says they didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the rain to stop because they had to finish before Christmas, but adds that the weather worked for the story because it visually punctuates feelings of hardship and despair.

“The script supervisor was a Canadian and the makeup people were from England,” he says. “It was kind of a United Nations meeting. At first, we were worried that it would create an impossible chaos. It wasn’t just language. People had different levels of experience, but everyone was inspired. We became a family.”

Zielinski covered scenes with both cameras most of the time because of the tight schedule and the need for different angles for the editor. He lit and timed the film for a desaturated, high contrast, monochromatic gray look with hard, black shadows.

“That was a crucial decision in terms of staging and use of film noir lighting,” Zielinski says. “In the beginning, I had to remind myself, don’t use soft light and don’t make it beautiful ... there are scenes with multiple harsh shadows and contrast that look more believable for the place and time.”

Sendler was arrested on October 20, 1943. She was questioned and tortured by the Gestapo who wanted the names and addresses of other people in the underground. She refused to talk even when they broke both of her legs and feet. Sendler was scheduled to be executed, but the underground bribed a German officer to leave her by the side of the road where they picked her up and brought her to a deserted farm house in a remote area.

Sendler had hidden the names of all the children she had rescued in a bottle that was buried in the ground. After the war ended, she tried to re-unite children with their families, but almost all of the parents were dead.

Irena Sendler was 98 years old when she died in 2008, but her story is alive in the hearts of people whose lives she touched and the audience who saw the premiere of The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler on CBS Television on April 19.

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