The Pianist


Solo Effort

Roman Polanski’s latest strikes a perfect chord

There’s a pivotal moment in The Pianist when its protagonist, celebrated composer and pianist and real-life Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), is called upon to give a singularly crucial command performance. Discovered hiding in the parlor of an abandoned house by a Nazi soldier (Thomas Kretschmann), the starving, feeble Szpilman is ordered to play a nearby piano. Summoning his final reserves of strength and courage, he pours every last bit of the torment, desperation, and fear he’s been carrying for five agonizing years into a stirring rendition of Chopin’s Ballad ‘No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23.’ Nerve-wracking and profoundly intimate, the scene perfectly encapsulates the beauty and anguish of this incredible film.

The Pianist sees director Roman Polanski shooting in Poland for the first time in over 40 years. In what may well be his most personal film ever, Polanski, who escaped as a child from Poland’s Cracow Ghetto, has crafted an unblinking look at the atrocities suffered by more than a half-million Polish Jews that’s as utterly compelling as it is painfully difficult to watch. Awash in hues of gray and brown, it vividly recreates not only the squalid Warsaw Ghetto, but also the war-ravaged city itself. Bolstered by Brody’s gut-wrenching performance as a man living only by animal instincts, it’s a gripping portrait of cruelty and bravery that stirs and numbs simultaneously.

The film is based on Szpilman’s astonishing autobiography. Proving there are as many Holocaust stories as there are people who lived through it, Szpilman’s harrowing tale offers one of only a handful of first-person accounts of life within the Warsaw Ghetto. At first glance, Szpilman’s story resembles those of countless other Holocaust survivors, and to a degree, it’s quite similar: a remarkable account of endurance in the face of hopelessness. Rounded up with his family, he’s herded into the newly created “Jewish District,” a walled-off section of Warsaw that will eventually imprison almost a half-million people in unlivable conditions of overcrowding and epidemic. Like many other Holocaust survivors, Szpilman suffers the loss of his belongings, his dignity and his humanity. He witnesses unspeakable acts of brutality. Despite his best efforts to save his family, he watches helplessly as they are loaded onto trains, to be delivered to certain death.

There is, however, a variation in Szpilman’s astonishing story. It hinges on the solo nature of his survival effort. Although he’s aided by others at various times, Szpilman is, for the most part, alone in his endeavors to stay alive. Whether padlocked into a vacant apartment, taking cover in a bombed-out Nazi hospital or foraging alone among the ruins of Warsaw, he’s left solely to his own devices, often in serious peril. Moreover, he has no source of information about the ongoing war; no knowledge of anything, really, besides his immediate surroundings.

An extraordinary twist of fate makes Szpilman’s story truly distinctive, but the statistics alone are astonishing. Nearly 500,000 Jews were packed into the Warsaw Ghetto. Random killings reduced their numbers by as much as 100,000. Over 300,000 of the remaining Jews were deported to extermination camps. Most of the 40,000 left behind after that were killed in a noble but ill-fated insurrection. When the Germans finally retreated in January 1945, there were only 20 Jews – 20 out of 500,000 – left alive in the city of Warsaw. One of them was Wladyslaw Szpilman.

(Appeared in Gay City News)