Music was his passion. Survival was his masterpiece.
The Pianist (2002) is an account of the true life experience of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman during WWII.
This is a truly heart-wrenching story of one man whose family perishes in the Holocaust and about his survival over solitude, deprivation, starvation and terror whilst in hiding in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. In my opinion it is one of the finest portrayals of the Holocaust and stands alongside Schindler’s List as one of the great films depicting of the horrors of Holocaust.
Directed by Roman Polanski (himself a child survivor of the Krakow and Warsaw ghettos) the film gains in intensity by displaying the war from Szpilman’s own point of view (through windows, half-opened doors, holes in the walls, with big emphasis on the use of point of view shooting by cinematographer Pawel Edelman). One cannot help feeling disturbed by scenes of the film, where an isolated Szpilman tries to ensure his survival in the ghetto and ruins of Warsaw, hiding and fleeing, moving from one bombed house to the next, gradually becoming a shadow of his former self, hungry and afraid (merit largely attributed to the extraordinary performance by Adrien Brody, who visibly loses half of his weight throughout the film).
Does Szpilman raise any sympathy from the audience ? Not immediately, in my view. Szpilman is more than often a drifting character, almost a witness of other people’s and his own horrors. He seems to float and drift along the film like a lost feather, with people quickly appearing and disappearing from his life, some helping generously, others taking advantage of his quiet despair, always maintaining an almost blank, dispassionate demeanour. One may even wonder why we should care in the least about this character. But we do care. That is, I believe, the secret to this film’s poetry.
There is also a very interesting point raised by the the Szpilman’s father early in the film who upon reading something in the paper, comments about how the Americans have forgotten them. Well, not only the Americans, but the rest of the world would not raise a finger to do anything for the people that were being imprisoned and made to live in the confined area of Warsaw (does it not sound familiar in the context of today). The exterminating camps will come later.
While there’s no lack of haunting scenes, thanks to the deservedly Oscar-winning work from Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood, the one that always gets me is the one where Szpilman whilst hiding in a ruined hospital sits down and imagines himself playing with the music being heard is only in Szpilman’s head. He is soon forced to flee the hospital where he manages to find himself in the streets of Warsaw which are now totally in ruins.
In another of the film’s unforgettable scenes, towards the end, a German officer (Wilm Hosenfeld) discovers Szpilman in hiding and asks him to play the piano, in an episode that suddenly brings a much lighter, beautifully poetic shade to the film (Hosenfeld is often compared to Oskar Schindler, although his philanthropy does not quite share the same basis).
In such a relentlessly grim film and amidst all the horror and death there is still room to be found with the beauty of what humans can achieve.
This is also a wonderful tribute to Polish artists, particularly through Chopin’s music, with the concert at the very end of the film and the opening performance by Szpilman at the local radio station (with the sound of bomb explosions in the background) forming an harmonious link between the beginning and end of the film.
Overall, The Pianist is one of the most detailed and shocking accounts of the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis, with the atmosphere in Warsaw superbly captured and believable. The Pianist will remain in the history of film-making as one of the most touching and realistic portraits of the Holocaust ever made.
It is Roman Polanski’s masterpiece.
and the tease for next week’s post . . . The Man from Malpaso.