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‘ The Pianist ” - Roman Polanski

Does the world really need another Holocaust film? Keene ( December 00). Roman Polanski’s, ‘The Pianist’ brings us face to face with a historical record presented on screen so many times it may seem to have lost some of its force. During the past 1 years, there have been 170 movies on the Holocaust. No other historic subject has received such extraordinary cinematic focus. Whilst we can say the theme has been over exploited, ‘The Pianist’ focuses on one persons extraordinary story, however also emphasises that almost every holocaust survivor possesses an equally terrifying account.

Based on a true story, ‘The Pianist’ recounts the experiences of Wladislaw Szpilman (Adrian Brody), a young Jewish musician whose world was, his family and his music, until he was deprived of both when the Germans invaded Poland in 1. ‘The Pianist’ puts you in the Warsaw Ghetto that encloses you, just as the brick wall enclosed 500,000 Jews by 140. The Ghetto was, overcrowded with people who were forced to shamely wear the Star of David armbands and who’s fate was held in the hands of the Nazi’s. We learn of this life in the ghetto through the Szpilman family.

Wladyslaw Szpilman, was an intense young man, living in an upscale neighbourhood of Warsaw with his family, including his mother (Maureen Lipman), father (Frank Finlay), brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard) and sisters. The film begins with him playing the piano for a Polish radio station, when the first bombs are dropped in Warsaw. As he flees the studio, he meets a pretty blonde lady by the name of Dorota (Emilia Fox), but their attempts at dating are overcome by their different faiths and by the Nazi’s prohibiting Jews from many sectors of the city. However, Szpilmans and Dorota cross paths again many years later.

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Music, literally, saves Szpilman’s life. Initially, his status as a renowned musician allows him and his family to live in the smaller but better part of the ghetto, and to work as a pianist in a Jewish restaurant. We see Szpilman and his family, cling to life, as they watch the Jewish ghetto being built, children die in front of them and innocent people dragged from their beds and shot. For a while, Szpilman and his family manage to escape the difficulties of deportation as they find employment that prolongs their stay for the moment. Not long after, deportation was inevitable. When he and his family are finally forced to board the cattle cars that will take them to the Treblinka death camp, he is pulled aside by a Jewish collaborator / policeman who admires his music, and allowed him to return to the Ghetto. Isolated and numb by all the misfortune of being separated by his family, Szpilman is an observer of the cruel fate that affects his life.

After eventually escaping the Ghetto, he is rescued by the Polish underground whom included Dorta and her husband. The Polish underground located Szpilman into various apartments throughout the city to, “await the worst .” From here Szpilman is solitary, for he can not afford to be discovered by the Germans . Although, he receives some assistance through friends along the way, he is virtually alone as he fights hunger, loneliness, sickness and fear. But the journey gives a unique perspective on the war raging, as he observes through the progression of windows. “Whether hiding out underground, censoring his behaviour, relying on the kindness of strangers or being exposed to the continued inhumane harassment of Nazi dominance, Szpilman’s humanity is constantly tested by the disbelief of this elaborate, nightmarish scenario.” Frank Ochieng (00).

Thorough the film, Szpilman finds himself music-less.  Although he cannot risk making a sound while hiding in a Warsaw apartment, he sits by the piano and moves his fingers above the keys, appreciating the silent music. With this, he touches our hearts and has us genuinely hoping that he will endure and survive through the turmoil we see him miraculously battle alone. In his final hiding place in bombed-out Warsaw, Szpilman is protected by a Nazi music lover, who brings him food and a warm coat. But equally important, music keeps his spirit alive.

After a long, lonely, awaited moment , Szpilman is finally saved by the Russian soldiers. It was from this moment, the struggle was over. After the war, we learn, Szpilman remained in Warsaw and worked the remaining of his life as a pianist.

The Director, Roman Polanski is a Holocaust survivor, saved at one point when his father pushed him through the barbed wire of a camp, he wandered the Ghetto a frightened child, cared for by the kindness of strangers. “Polanski’s own experiences as a child, gives the film a wider socio-historical import than would a fictional narrative using the well-worn background of the War to provide dramatic context.” Yoram Allon (00). Polanski is dependable, as he knows all he has to do is tell the story and tell it well. He Crafts the movie with confidence, by keeping the narrative simple, knowing the power of the story needs no manipulation, as you cant hope to explain this much pain, you just show it.

Although Polanski chose not to film his own story, his own horrific war time experiences related very closely to that of Szpilmans. As an artistic Jewish youngster growing up in Poland during the holocaust, Polanski was able to identify closely with Szpilman and use his traumatic tale to convey his own feelings about life in Poland under Nazi rule. Polanski, like Szpilman, is a camera, witnessing and recording these events so they will never be forgotten. It presents this devastating moment in history through an artist’s first hand account. ‘The Pianist’, does not exploit or simplify its subject; there are good and hateful Poles, courageous and selfish Jews, even a kind-hearted Nazi.

So what does make this film so unique and different from other Holocaust films? I would have to argue against, ‘Phil Hall (00)’ who classified ‘The Pianist’, as ‘just another’ representation of the Holocaust and consequently, it’s theme alone has lost it’s force as a film. As there are no words left to describe the horrors of the Holocaust, Polanski’s approach as he portrays the severely caustic manipulations behind the Holocaust, makes the film more honest in contrast to other World War II films. Instead of focusing on the hideous movement of the Nazis, Polanski, uses the thriving madness of the Holocaust as a background landscape to mould his character of Szpilman.

By showing Szpilman as a survivor, rather than a fighter or a hero, Polanski is reflecting himself as a man who does all he can to save himself, but would have died without enormous good luck and the kindness of a few non-Jews. It is the approach of capturing the more common way of which the Jewish survived - by chance rather than heroism, that makes this film so incredibly distinctive.

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The title is an understatement, and so is the film. Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" tells the story of a Polish Jew, a classical musician, who survived the Holocaust through stoicism and good luck. This is not a thriller, and avoids any temptation to crank up suspense or sentiment; it is the pianist's witness to what he saw and what happened to him. That he survived was not a victory when all whom he loved died; Polanski, in talking about his own experiences, has said that the death of his mother in the gas chambers remains so hurtful that only his own death will bring closure.


The film is based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, who was playing Chopin on a Warsaw radio station when the first German bombs fell. Szpilman's family was prosperous and seemingly secure, and his immediate reaction was, "I'm not going anywhere." We watch as the Nazi noose tightens. His family takes heart from reports that England and France have declared war; surely the Nazis will soon be defeated and life will return to normal.

It does not. The city's Jews are forced to give up their possessions and move to the Warsaw ghetto, and there is a somber shot of a brick wall being built to enclose it. A Jewish police force is formed to enforce Nazi regulations, and Szpilman is offered a place on it; he refuses, but a good friend, who joins, later saves his life by taking him off a train bound for the death camps. Then the movie tells the long and incredible story of how Szpilman survived the war by hiding in Warsaw, with help from the Polish resistance.

Szpilman is played in the film by Adrien Brody, who is more gaunt and resourceless than in Ken Loach's "Bread And Roses" (2000), where he played a cocky Los Angeles union organizer. We sense that his Szpilman is a man who came early and seriously to music, knows he is good, and has a certain aloofness to life around him. More than once we hear him reassuring others that everything will turn out all right; this faith is based not on information or even optimism, but essentially on his belief that, for anyone who plays the piano as well as he does, it must.

Polanski himself is a Holocaust survivor, saved at one point when his father pushed him through the barbed wire of a camp. He wandered Krakow and Warsaw, a frightened child, cared for by the kindness of strangers. His own survival (and that of his father) are in a sense as random as Szpilman's, which is perhaps why he was attracted to this story. Steven Spielberg tried to enlist him to direct "Schindler's List," but he refused, perhaps because Schindler's story involved a man who deliberately set out to frustrate the Holocaust, while from personal experience Polanski knew that fate and chance played an inexplicable role in most survivals.


The film was shot in Poland (where he had not worked since his first feature film, "Knife in the Water," in 1962), and also in Prague and in a German studio. On giant sets he recreates a street overlooked by the apartment where Szpilman is hidden by sympathizers; from his high window the pianist can see the walls of the ghetto, and make inferences about the war, based on the comings and goings at the hospital across the street. Szpilman is safe enough here for a time, but hungry, lonely, sick and afraid, and then a bomb falls and he discovers with terror that the running water no longer works. By now it is near the end of the war and the city lies in ruins; he finds some rooms standing in the rubble, ironically containing a piano that he dare not play.

The closing scenes of the movie involve Szpilman's confrontation with a German captain named Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), who finds his hiding place by accident. I will not describe what happens, but will observe that Polanski's direction of this scene, his use of pause and nuance, is masterful.

Some reviews of "The Pianist" have found it too detached, lacking urgency. Perhaps that impassive quality reflects what Polanski wants to say. Almost all of the Jews involved in the Holocaust were killed, so all of the survivor stories misrepresent the actual event by supplying an atypical ending. Often their buried message is that by courage and daring, these heroes saved themselves. Well, yes, some did, but most did not and--here is the crucial point--most could not. In this respect Tim Blake Nelson's "The Grey Zone" (2001) is tougher and more honest, by showing Jews trapped within a Nazi system that removed the possibility of moral choice.

By showing Szpilman as a survivor but not a fighter or a hero--as a man who does all he can to save himself, but would have died without enormous good luck and the kindness of a few non-Jews--Polanski is reflecting, I believe, his own deepest feelings: that he survived, but need not have, and that his mother died and left a wound that had never healed.

After the war, we learn, Szpilman remained in Warsaw and worked all of his life as a pianist. His autobiography was published soon after the war, but was suppressed by Communist authorities because it did not hew to the party line (some Jews were flawed and a German was kind). Republished in the 1990s, it caught Polanski's attention and resulted in this film, which refuses to turn Szpilman's survival into a triumph and records it primarily as the story of a witness who was there, saw, and remembers.


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