The pianist (2002)


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.

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.
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.
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.

Photo of Szpilman, the most famous of Warsaw Robinsons, at the Warsaw Uprising Museum

Survival during the Holocaust

Władysław Szpilman and his family, along with all other Jews living in Warsaw, were forced to move into a "Jewish quarter" – the Warsaw Ghetto – on 31 October 1940. Once all the Jews were confined within the ghetto, a wall was constructed to separate them from the rest of the Nazi German-occupied city. Szpilman managed to find work as a musician to support his family, which included his mother, father, brother Henryk, and two sisters, Regina and Halina.[4] He first worked at the Nowoczesna Cafe, where the patrons sometimes ignored his playing in order to conduct business, as he recalled in the memoir.[5]

Szpilman later played in a cafe on Sienna Street and after 1942 in the Sztuka Cafe on Leszno Street as well. In these last two cafes he performed chamber music with violinist Zygmunt Lederman, performed in the piano duo with Andrzej Goldfeder, and played with other musicians as well.[6]

Everyone in his family was deported in 1942 to Treblinka, an extermination camp within German-occupied Poland roughly 80.5 km (50.0 mi) northeast of Warsaw. A member of the Jewish Police assisting in deportations, who recognized Szpilman, pulled him from a line of people—including his parents, brother, and two sisters—being loaded onto a train at the transport site (which, as in other ghettos, was called the Umschlagplatz). None of Szpilman's family members survived the war. Szpilman stayed in the ghetto as a labourer,[7] and helped smuggle in weapons for the coming Jewish resistance uprising. Szpilman remained in the Warsaw Ghetto until 13 February 1943, shortly before it was abolished after the deportation of most of its inhabitants in April–May 1943.

Szpilman found places to hide in Warsaw and survived with the help of his friends from Polish Radio and fellow musicians such as Andrzej Bogucki and his wife Janina, Czesław Lewicki, and Helena Lewicka supported by Edmund Rudnicki, Witold LutosławskiEugenia UmińskaPiotr Perkowski, and Irena Sendler. He evaded capture several times. Beginning in August 1944, Szpilman was hiding out in an abandoned building at Aleje Niepodległości Street 223. In November, he was discovered there by the German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. To Szpilman's surprise, the officer did not arrest or kill him; after discovering that the emaciated Szpilman was a pianist, Hosenfeld asked him to play something on the piano that was on the ground floor. Szpilman played Chopin's Nocturne No. 20 in C♯ minor.[8] After that, the officer brought him bread and jam on numerous occasions. He also offered Szpilman one of his coats to keep warm in the freezing temperatures. Szpilman did not know the name of the German officer until 1951. Despite the efforts of Szpilman and the Poles to rescue him, Hosenfeld died in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in 1952.[2][9]

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