The Holocaust has become an almost sacred subject, sanctified by the magnitude of the horrors perpetrated and the proportionate suffering of its victims. Memorializing the events so that they are not forgotten, so that perhaps future atrocities might be avoided, is an ongoing process; the stories are carried to future generations by history, by brick-and-mortar monuments, and by the arts, not the least of which are the movies.
The range is as wide as the imagination, from the microcosm of The Diary Of Anne Frank, to the larger Spielbergian scale of Schindler’s List, to the flashback experiences of a gentile survivor in Sophie’s Choice, to the astounding documentary Shoah. Each filmmaker brings to the subject an individual viewpoint, a unique vision to add to the communal understanding of events that remain, in the extremes of their inhumanity, incomprehensible. Director Roman Polanski, himself a survivor of the bombing of Warsaw and the Cracow Ghetto, chose as the vehicle for his film the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, an accomplished pianist and a Polish Jew.
With some archival footage of Warsaw from 1939, Polanski sets the scene and gets right down to business. Szpilman is playing Chopin for a live radio broadcast as the first Nazi bombs hit the city. He continues to play when others in the studio flee–in defense of his art he is fearless. Szpilman lives with his parents and siblings in middle-class comfort. The film depicts the successive steps by the occupying Nazis first to restrict the rights of Jews, such as their possession of currency, then to require them to wear the identifying armbands, ultimately to force all to move within the ghetto, and later, into an even smaller area of the ghetto where food was scarce and living conditions abysmal. For a while, Szpilman is able to work playing piano in a restaurant, though his brother reproaches him for living off of the black marketers–the only Jews who could afford to go to such a place by then.
All of this exposition is accomplished as straightforward narrative, beautifully photographed and finely acted. Szpilman himself seems a rather passive observer; where others express anguish or anger, he expresses no strong emotion. Since the film takes his viewpoint, the effect is to distance the characters (including Szpilman) from the viewer. This emotional understatement is surely deliberate on Polanski’s part, as if to imply that the horror of the events themselves is in the observing, rather than in the feeling. It is impossible not to respond to the sight of an old man in a wheelchair being thrown from the balcony of a building or another, desperately hungry, eating spilled grain directly from the gutter or a German officer randomly pulling individuals out of a lineup to lie face-down in the street and be shot in the back of the head.But these events evoke a lesser response than they would if these horrors were happening to characters who are more than strangers in passing, characters drawn as real people rather than as straw men.
The Germans start evacuating the Jews from the ghetto, herding them in cattle cars destined for the camp at Treblinka. But as his family is climbing on the train, one of the policemen pulls Szpilman out and sends him back, saving his life. As he walks back through the corpse-littered streets of the depopulated ghetto, he weeps loudly, the first and only time in the film that he displays strong emotion. But his tears fail to disturb as they should because the character has been drawn in so little depth; his tears seem more about self-pity than about the monstrous atrocities that surround him.
The balance of the film shows Szpilman becoming ever more isolated, hiding here and there with the aid of gentile friends, until they, too, leave Warsaw. When the survivors in the ghetto rise up to fight the Nazi’s, he merely observes from the safety of his hiding place, just outside the ghetto. When he questions why they pursue this futile fight, it is his gentile friend who says to him with some indignation that at least the fighters will die with dignity. It seems a reproach, but Szpilman gives no sign of understanding such a course–his only role seems to be to survive. And, whatever other points Polanski makes or fails to make in the film, he repeatedly demonstrates that it is arbitrary quirks of fate that determine who lives and who dies.
Towards the end of Szpilman’s ordeal, a German officer finds him in hiding. The officer asks him what he does and then asks him to play the piano. After Szpilman performs a beautiful rendering of a Chopin Ballade, the officer spares him and later assists him–the Germans are about to retreat as Russian forces arrive in Warsaw. At the end, Szpilman is seen in white tie, playing with a symphony in a grand hall. Polanski’spresentation of the German officer seems meant to suggest that not all the Nazis were heartless perpetrators, but one can’t but help to wonder if the outcome would have been the same if Szpilman had run into the same officer before defeat was imminent or, for that matter, if he had been a plumber rather than a pianist. And for the camera to pan to a picture on the officer’s desk of his wife and children seems facile–were none of the Nazi bullies and sadists Polanski showed earlier also family men?
Polanski’s emphasis throughout is on Szpilman’s tunnel vision of the world as a place for him to play the piano and his mostly detached emotional response to the devastation engulfing him. Little else is revealed of him, no clue is offered as to further complexity in his personality; he remains a cipher, a cinematic device. The Pianist is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking from a technical and visually aesthetic point of view, but Polanski’s choice of emotional distance as his mode and the choice of Szpilman as hero combine to make the film a miscalculated disappointment.