More than a Holocaust movie

Two reviewers heard Roman Polanski strike different notes in The Pianist.

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Two reviewers heard Roman Polanski strike different notes in The Pianist.

  • Allison Felus: ‘The film shows us that identity is more about what you do than who you are.’

Whatever you do, don’t call The Pianist ‘a Holocaust film’.

Just as Chinatown is more than a film noir and Rosemary’s Baby more than a horror flick, Roman Polanski’s latest movie defies categorisation.

The Pianist tells the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman – radio celebrity, Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. Based on Szpilman’s 1946 autobiography, it takes us on a claustrophobic tour of the ghetto and shows the Herculean effort it took to save just one life from genocide.

It is perhaps unfair to say The Pianist isn’t a Holocaust film, when it’s clearly superior to most of the recent films on the subject. It’s not your standard, bleeding-heart weeper that flatters the audience’s desire to feel ‘bad’ for two hours, though it does give ample evidence of the devastation visited upon the Jews of Warsaw. Rather, Polanski uses our anticipated emotional response to challenge us to think about what it means to be human.

In their haste to laud Polanski’s return to greatness, and to praise Adrien Brody’s career-making performance as Szpilman, most critics have neglected to comment on something as simple as the title. Why is the film called The Pianist? It wouldn’t be wrong to read it as an autobiographical gesture, as Polanski equating his own artistry as a Holocaust survivor with his title character’s experience. But in a broader sense, it looks like a way of interrogating the politics of identity.

We are not subjected to any soppy montages of the Szpilman family lighting candles, reading from the Torah, wearing yarmulkes, or any other external representation of Judaism. In its place, we get the mournful wail of a Klezmer clarinet on the soundtrack and other suggestions that music and art are the Szpilmans’ true religious affiliations; being Jewish is just their cultural heritage. Wladyslaw plays the piano; his father worries that stuffing hidden money in his violin will prevent him from playing it; his brother brings The Merchant of Venice along as one of his last Earthly possessions.

Calling Szpilman ‘the pianist’ is a more poetic way of calling him ‘the Jew’. It shows us that identity is more about what you do than who you are. It makes us feel the terror of the Nazis’ agenda – to suppress personality in order to make their victims easier to exterminate – more acutely when we see Wladyslaw denied the ability to play the piano. Music equals identity, which in turn equals life, and without it, this man is more dead than he would be with a bullet in his skull.

The scene that has generated the most discussion deals with this very issue. While hiding in an abandoned house, Szpilman is discovered by an SS officer (Thomas Kretschmann). The German treats the now skeletal Szpilman with unexpected respect, speaking to him with the formal German pronoun ‘Sie’ instead of the condescending ‘du’. Upon learning that this fugitive used to be a professional musician, the officer leads him to a piano and says, ‘play something.’ It’s a command – but it is also an invitation, as if to say: ‘Be who you are.’ Szpilman sits at the instrument and unleashes a furious Chopin sonata that will stay with viewers long after they’ve left the theatre.

Polanski refuses to sentimentalise the artistic process. Rather than allowing us to bask in the fiction of the Noble Artist, he catches us out in our prejudice and forces us to acknowledge that Szpilman’s talent also makes him arrogant. Ironically, this arrogance makes him a symbolic brother to the Nazis.

Yet it’s not hard to make the logical leap that it’s precisely this pride that ends up saving Szpilman’s life. He’s so accustomed to being special, to being the exception to the rule, that he can’t abide the thought that he won’t make it out of the war alive. Of course, there are numerous twists of fate that could have easily done him in and a large supporting cast of characters who risked their own safety to keep him from harm. But, ultimately, it seems that not only was Szpilman privileged once as a musician, but was privileged twice as a survivor.

Is this revelation Darwinian? Is it blind luck? Is it, as the German officer tells Szpilman, God’s desire that we survive? What does it mean for the millions of souls who perished at the Nazis’ hands?

There are no easy answers to these questions, or the myriad others raised during the course of the film. But there is comfort in the fact that The Pianist is perhaps the quintessential Polanski film. If art truly does equal life, this is the film that will define him both as a director and a human being.

  • Toby Marshall: ‘Polanski offers a narrative that doesn’t allow us to draw hasty conclusions.’

The Pianist offers a deliberately unsentimental and stylistically restrained interpretation of Szpilman’s autobiography.

It opens with the Luftwaffe bombing Poland’s capital. The Germans are preparing to invade, but Wladyslaw has other things on his mind. He is broadcasting live on Polish radio and is so engrossed in his recital that it takes a direct hit for him to leave the studio. On his return home we meet the rest of the family, including his pragmatic father (Frank Finlay) and nervous mother (Maureen Lipman). For a moment the sense of foreboding lifts as the BBC announces that Britain has declared war on Germany – yet we know that both the Poles and the Polish Jews are about live through a period of unrivalled brutality.

Polanski’s depiction of the Szpilmans’ experiences in the Warsaw ghetto makes for challenging viewing. While we may have anticipated the arbitrary brutality of the Nazis, which is dramatised in minute and unflinching detail, the depiction of the Jewish community confounds our expectations. In a more predictable treatment of this grim historical episode, the inhabitants of the ghetto would have been united though their common oppression, but not in The Pianist.

In particular, Polanski foregrounds the activities of those who worked for the Nazi-appointed Judenrat (Jewish Council) and who took responsibility for implementing policies that would ultimately assist the Final Solution. Others are shown to profit from the escalating food prices, which rise dramatically due to Nazi restrictions on supply. Wladyslaw survives by getting a job as a pianist in a swanky Jewish restaurant, whose customers dine on fine food, and listen to his affective playing, while the bodies of the starved pile up in the streets.

The leftist resistance is the only group that comes out of the film with much dignity. One of its jovial leaders reminds Wladyslaw that even in the ghetto he should ‘always look on the bright side’ and notes, with unintended irony, that his relative good fortune in comparison to others is an example of ‘the historical imperative in action’.

Polanski films all of this with stylistic reserve. In one scene we watch from the other side of the street as the Nazis raid a Jewish tenement block. As they enter a darkened flat at the top, and the lights are turned on, we find a family that is sitting in the dark to avoid detection. The officer in charge orders them to stand to attention, but the eldest wheelchair-bound member cannot oblige. To demonstrate his complete command of the situation, the officer orders that he be picked him up and thrown off the balcony.
Significantly, Polanski shots this scene in a long shot, avoiding the more intimate framing that would have heightened our emotional engagement, but restricted our space for thought.

This detachment is mirrored in Polanski’s choice of central protagonist. The effete Wladyslaw wants to help the resistance, and he does his bit, but he’s of no real use to them as fighter. Consequently, he, like us, plays the role of a spectator in the tragedy that unfolds around him. By the time of the final Jewish uprising, Wladysaw has escaped the ghetto and is forced to watch its bloody defeat from the flat in which he is hiding, a dramatic device that Polanski repeats when the Polish resistance decides to make its stand.

Polanski offers a narrative that doesn’t allow us to draw hasty conclusions with regards to the motivations, or morality, of the participants – even individual Nazis. In the concluding section, Wladyslaw is found in hiding by a German officer who orders him to play a piano to prove his identity. On hearing Wladyslaw’s playing, the officer decides to provide him with food and shelter.

While Polanski never reveals the precise motivations for this act – could it be that the officer has comes to recognise Wladyslaw’s humanity though his music? – the scene does complicate our response, when it would have been far easier, and arguably more fashionable, to present all Nazis as inherently evil.

Unfortunately, Polanski’s work has proved too sophisticated for some. The Pianist quite rightly earned him the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, but it is also reported that he was booed by a number of critics who objected to the lack emotion in the film. Perhaps Polanski, who himself lived through a similar experiences as a child in wartime Krakow and Warsaw, would have pleased his critics by encouraging us to emote a little more, and reflect a little less.

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