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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » September 30, 2009
The world of movies
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Heroine Sendler on the Silver Screen
September 30, 2009 By W.Ż.    
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A film recounting the true story of a Polish woman who saved some 2,500 children from the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of 1939-1945, opened in Polish cinemas Sept. 18.

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler began as a TV film produced by Hallmark Channel for their Hall of Fame series. The production was partly financed by the Polish Film Institute and Polish Telecom. The screenplay is based on Anna Mieszkowska's biography Mother of the Children of the Holocaust: The Story of Irena Sendler.

The TV film had its U.S. premiere April 19. A special cinema version has been made for European audiences.

Irena Sendler worked for the City of Warsaw during the occupation and was active in the underground. When the Polish Underground State created the Council to Aid Jews, codenamed "Żegota," in December 1942, she was appointed head of its Children's Department. Being employed in the social assistance center entitled her to a pass to the Jewish ghetto. Sendler organized the smuggling of children out of the ghetto and helped place them in foster families, orphanages and Catholic convents while working for a Polish aid organization operating under German supervision.

In 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and sentenced to death but Żegota managed to rescue her by bribing a German guard.

Sendler was recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Israel's Yad Vashem Institute in 1965 and was a Nobel Peace Prize candidate in 2007. She died in Warsaw in May 2008 aged 98 and did not live to see the premiere of the film.

The movie was directed by John Kent Harrison, a Canadian-born director who has been working in the U.S. for several years. Harrison's output includes an earlier TV film depicting Poland's most recent history-the biopic John Paul II (2005) with Jon Voight in the title role of Karol Wojtyła, the man who later became pope. The role of Sendler was entrusted to 27-year-old Anna Paquin, whose portrayal of the lead's daughter in Jane Campion's The Piano won her the 1993 Academy Award for best supporting actress. As an adult actress, Paquin is known to cinemagoers the world over from the cult science fiction series X-Men (2000) and the black war comedy Buffalo Soldiers (2001).

Paquin is not the only Academy Award winner to grace the film. Marcia Gay Harden, who picked up her Oscar in 2001 in the same category as Paquin for her role in Ed Harris's Pollock, plays Sendler's mother Janina. Harden has appeared in such films as Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (2003).

The roll-call of Academy Award winners is bolstered by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, who composed the score. Kaczmarek won an Oscar for Best Music (Scoring) category in 2005 for his work on Marc Forster's Finding Neverland (2004). Long-term Hollywood resident Kaczmarek has composed scores for several Agnieszka Holland films, including Total Eclipse (1995), Washington Square (1997) and The Third Miracle (1999).

A huge Polish contingent worked on The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. Jerzy Zieliński was the cinematographer, Waldemar Kalinowski designed the sets, and Małgorzata Braszka and Paweł Grabaczyk the costumes.
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