Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 30 min.
Our content rating: V-7; L-2; S/N-1.
For I was envious of the arrogant;
I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain;
their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against heaven,
and their tongues range over the earth.
The second Holocaust film of the season is not as horrific as The Grey Zone, but nonetheless is a chilling look at the evil humans are capable of. It also shows the heights to which a few can attain, although it is not that of the main character, who is anything but heroic. Based on the memoir of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, this Roman Polanski film is the story of a man who survives, largely due to the noble efforts of Polish gentiles willing to risk their own lives—and to some timely the quirks of fate. Or is this, as one rescuer, a very ironic figure, states, due to God? I like to think so, for in this case, this is the story of a series of remarkable moments of grace.
Adrien Brody’s performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman is highly restrained, mistakenly described by one critic as “one note.” It is just right for the portrayal of a man who is more of an observer of events than a participant in them. After some vintage shots of 1939 Warsaw, the film begins with Szpilman’s playing the piano in the studio of a Warsaw radio station during the Nazi bombing of the city. Despite the signal to stop from the nervous technician, Szpilman continues to play. Only when a bomb hits their building does he cease and join the crowd hastening down the stairway to a shelter. Enroute he meets Dorota (Emilia Fox), a beautiful gentile drawn to his playing and person. They exchange a few words and then are parted. Many a Hollywood film director would have shown this as the start of a deathless love affair bridging time and circumstances. Not so with Polanski. Later, when all Jews are forced to live behind the walls of the ghetto, and Szpilman sees Dorota at a distance, we think this will be the case. It doesn’t happen. They lose all contact until a few years later, but by then Dorota has married someone else, a decent Pole who, like her, is not only free of the anti-Semitism that has poisoned the souls of so many their neighbors, but who is dedicated to helping rescue Jews.
The film is strong in showing how the road to the death camps was gradual enough that most Jews were unaware of their ultimate fate. The Szpilman family regrets the difficulty of finding work because of the Nazi-imposed restrictions. They discuss where to hide the little money they do have, the necessity of hiding it due to the fact that they have almost twice as much as allowable by the new restrictions. Most of them unable to find work, they talk about what to see—and are outraged at the paltry price they are offered. One of them—I don’t remember whether it was Wlad or his father–learns the hard way that Jews are expected to bow to Nazi officers when they pass each other on the street—the angry Nazi hits him in the face, and then orders him off the sidewalk and into the gutter.
When the edict ordering them to leave their apartment and move into the ghetto, they can scarcely believe that so many—400,000–will be expected to live together in such a confined space. The seriousness of their plight is driven home when they look out the window of their new, shabby quarters and see workmen laying the bricks across the street for the wall that will hem them in. During their discussion of the edict requiring them to sew a Star of David on their clothing, Wlad’s brother insists he will never wear one. Of course, he does. Wlad is able to find work playing the piano in a ghetto bar, a far cry from the classical concerts which had made him famous.
We see lots of stark Nazi brutality, dead bodies lying on every street, the result either of a shooting or from starvation. However, what moved me more were the daily public humiliations inflicted upon the people. One example is the scene in which the crowds are made to wait at a gate while the traffic speeds through the thoroughfare that bi-sects the ghetto. The two guards insult the waiting people, and then, singling out an old man, they order him to dance. They force several more to join him. Fearing a beating or worse, the Jews can only obey, while the guards laugh and make rude remarks.
When the round-ups of Jews for deportation begin, many believe that conditions might be better in the labor camp than in the ghetto. This is soon dispelled when leaders of the resistance movement send out scouts to follow the trains and discover that they are not going to their announced destinations—and that the trains always return empty. “They mean to exterminate us,” a leader says. To his credit, Wlad tries to join the resistance, but Majorek (Daniel Caltagirone) turns him down because he is too well known an artist. Wlad and his brother are offered the opportunity of joining the Jewish police force, but they turn refuse. Even though they scorn the policeman who tries to persuade them, he later becomes instrumental in their fate. First, it is to extricate Wlad’s brother from the police after his arrest, and later, he pulls Wlad from the midst of his family as they are about to depart on a train bound for a death camp.
Wlad desperately tries to rejoin his family, but the solid line of Jewish policemen refuse to let him back through. He wanders back to the almost deserted ghetto, where he hides in a deserted building. When he watches the events of the great uprising, he does not join in. Even when it looks like he could have picked up a rifle from one of the German soldiers shot during the initial skirmish, Wlad does not do so. (We said earlier that this is not a typical Hollywood film.) After weeks of fierce resistance by the under-rated Jews, the Nazis bring in overwhelming force and turn the ghetto into a wasteland. Wlad leaves to find refuge in the homes of several gentile Poles. Dora and her husband are among these. One of those offering rescue turns out to be Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), a German officer commanding a rear-guard troop. Wlad has had to flee on his own and take refuge in the attic of a mansion, empty at the time, but soon filled with German soldiers. The officer, discovering the Jew at night, orders him to prove his claim to be a pianist. The German is apparently so moved that he not only does not turn him in, but also brings him food packages. When asked why he is doing this, he says that it is not he but perhaps God who is saving him.
We can see that Szpilman is not very impressed by bringing in God. Unlike the Psalmist, who also suffered some form of persecution and loss, Wlad seems to possess little of the ancestral faith that looks forward to vindication by God. Wladyslaw Szpilman has seen far too much wanton cruelty and senseless death to be able to believe. And yet, he has not given up the hope that Victor Frankl, himself a death camp survivor, affirmed was a necessity for survival in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. There is a wonderful scene wherein a benefactor conducts Wlad to a hide-away apartment. He is warned not to play the piano there or make any kind of noise that might arouse the suspicion of a Nazi-sympathizing neighbor. Soon we see Vlad sitting at the piano, and we hear rapturous piano music. So, he cannot resist the temptation to do what he has been so long denied? No, for we see his fingers carefully going over the keys, but not quite touching them. The music is in his mind. It is what keeps his hope alive and his mind sane through all the ordeal of the Nazi occupation.
The Pianist, then, is not the story of a hero, but of a survivor. The teller is too honest to make any false claims about his nature. He gives credit to the many people who risked their lives to save him. And even to an enemy, who unfortunately did not receive a suitable reward for his act of grace. If God is indeed responsible for the survival of Wladyslaw Szpilman, it is not just because of his great musical talent—hundreds of other musicians and artists were not so fortunate—but in order that he might add his testimony to that of others–testimony indicting the most horrendous killing program in human history, a program that began seemingly so harmlessly in the evil idea that some human beings are inferior to others of pure blood. Wladyslaw Szpilman died a couple of years ago; his music has ceased, but his testimony lives on—not just in his book, but in the adaptation by filmwriter Ronald Harwood.
Director Polanski reportedly had been invited by Steven Spielberg to direct Schindler’s List, but declined because he felt too close to the story—he had survived as a young boy the Nazi occupation of his native Cracow, the setting for Oskar Schindler’s story. He has at last found the right story for his own Holocaust film. Like an objective onlooker he stands back to let his cameras tell the story with just a small amount of sentiment. We have seen lots of Holocaust stories before, but we need still new ones so that we will forget neither the depravity nor the kind bravery of which we are capable.
Original review appeared in the Dec. 002 issue of VP.