Dressing the Ghetto

Anna Sheppard, internationally acclaimed costume designer for some of the top film productions of recent years, talked to John Edmondson on the 58th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising about her current work on Roman Polanski's The Pianist, and how she got where she is today.

Anna Sheppard left Poland to study English on a 6-month course some 25 years ago and stayed there. Now she's back in Poland designing costumes for the shooting of The Pianist, based on the autobiographical story of Władysław Szpilman, a Polish Jewish pianist and composer who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and eventually survived the war thanks to much risk-taking by his Polish friends and, finally, a music-loving German officer. It is Polanski's first film on Polish soil since Knife in the Water some 40 years ago, and his first about the Holocaust. He himself survived the Cracow ghetto, so he has had first-hand experience of life and suffering under the Nazis. It is a huge undertaking emotionally for Polanski, and he has waited a long time to put onto the screen and show the world through one man's experiences life in conditions very few people have ever really been able to imagine. It has to look real and it has to be his best, so for his costumes he has turned to the best. Enter Anna Sheppard.

Sheppard's greatest success so far has been her Oscar nomination for Schindler's List, and her BAFTA award for the same, but she had already worked on 38 films around the globe before this. The nomination won her a big-name Hollywood agent and ten major productions since then, including the recent Band of Brothers, the biggest WW2 production ever made, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

Sheppard trained in Łódź film school before she left for the UK, but never actually worked in England for many years. Indeed, she goes so far as to suggest that she was ignored as an untried and untested foreigner. Now, of course, they all want to work with her, but revenge is sweet: "My fees are too high for England!" She does, however, sometimes work there "for pleasure", and to be with her daughter, who is at school in London.

Originally she worked on several Krzysztof Zanussi films, first in Poland and then in France and Germany. She estimates she spends about six months a year away from Britain. Even so, she maintains that she has only ever been able to get the work because she speaks English. Everything is in English, even if sometimes the English spoken by the various nationalities is an abominable hotchpotch! When that's the case, she says, her English deteriorates terribly. Never mind, I insist, it's still better than mine.

At the beginning, life in England was difficult not being able to communicate properly, but her frustration motivated her to work hard and learn. She started to read all the Agatha Christie she could lay her hands on; she checked vocabulary all the time and hounded her English teachers for explanations; and most of all she asked people to correct her at all times. On top of this she was always outgoing - she freely admits to being a real chatterbox.

Her command of English helped her in getting Schindler's List: "I didn't lift a finger," she says. "One evening I was at home in London when the phone rang and the voice at the other end said, 'Hello, this is Steven Spielberg's office. Steven would like you to come over to meet him and talk about a project,' and so on." She was convinced friends were playing a joke on her. But no, she received her first class ticket, flew to the States and talked with Spielberg. He had already interviewed 15 designers for the film but wanted somebody with international experience who could speak English and Polish, and he had heard about Anna. So she got the job, literally by word of mouth. Recognition had come after a lot of hard work, though. "A single moment can change your life," she says with conviction.

The Pianist is a true story within the wider historical context of the Holocaust. Few people realise the complexities of society that existed within the Warsaw ghetto, and the costume designer's role is to help paint a convincing picture of this. So where did she start? "First I found every possible publication written about the ghetto that included photos," she explains. "I would study these carefully and think about how they could be useful for particular scenes, for example, in the ghetto market." At her base in Warsaw's main film studios in Chełmska St, there are many such photos forming a mini-exhibition depicting people from the ghetto in various states of deterioration as poverty and starvation set in. The photos are often surprising but always striking. It was no small task getting the correct look. Apart from the main character of Szpilman, played by American actor Adrien Brody, who needs very specific clothing (the same costume recreated in various states of deterioration as time passes), Sheppard decided to use only original clothing. For that she had to hunt all over Europe, in France, Germany and in Britain, to find the right period apparel. In Poland everything had been destroyed along with the millions who died. She collected 5,000 costumes in all. Polanski wanted all the extras to be dressed with as much attention to detail as the actors. "He even checks the extras' shoes," Sheppard explains, so the costume team have had their work cut out for them.

I suggested that having done Schindler's List her job was easier. Surprisingly not, however. "That was in black-and-white, this is in colour. It is more realistic in this sense." Indeed it has to be, as the look changes from the colourful pre-war costumes into the drab, depressing, colourlessness of war. The children in the pictures of the ghetto could be Polanski and his friends, so he sees The Pianist from a different perspective than other directors would, and knows instinctively if something is right or wrong. This is one man's story, but there were near half a million people in the ghetto at its peak, of whom 100,000 died in the ghetto from starvation and disease and 300,000 in Treblinka extermination camp.

Władysław Szpilman continued to live in Warsaw after the war, composing and performing. He died aged 88 on 6th July 2000, just missing the screen story of his life. As for Anna Sheppard, after filming it'll be back to London to catch up with family and friends - and practise her perfect English, of course.

John Edmondson