The Pianist is based on the true story of Polish and Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman during the deportation of the Jewish community in the Warsaw ghetto. Szpilman escaped death from concentration camps by the kindness of acquaintances and strangers and managed to outlast the war by hiding from the Nazi’s in various bombed buildings. Szpliman’s memoirs were adapted by playwright Ronald Harwood. I was thrilled that Roman Polanski was the person to direct the piece as it must have been personal to him, being a child survivor from the Krakow and Warsaw ghettos himself.
I think his personal wartime memories obviously helped shape the piece and brought his own vision to it. I was apprehensive that the film would focus solely on the dreadful actions of the Germans and how the Jews were treated, as there are plenty of holocaust films that portray the horror of concentration camps but we rarely see much of the survivors or how they coped through those times of hiding. Nevertheless, The Pianist was shot from survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman’s point of view. Most of what we see is out of a small window and as far as the film goes we have no idea what was happening to other Jews.
All we see is death and more death coupled with Szpliman’s determination to stay alive. I felt this was a fantastic directorial decision from Roman Polanski as this meant that instead of categorising people into heroes and villains we witnessed events unfold from Szpilman’s point of view and learn about his struggle to survive in Warsaw until the end of the war. I’m not suggesting that we can forgive the Germans for what they did, but there are moments in the film that allows us to see that some (even if just a few) of the Germans were ordinary people caught up in the extraordinary evil regime of Hitler and the Nazi’s.
Perhaps some of them just did not have the courage to take a stand to such a powerfully vicious man and in this instance maybe being evil was the easy yet painfully way out. Unlike other holocaust films that typically show ‘the good Jews vs. the bad Germans’, this film shows that the Jews were not just dignified and brave but also at times selfish and petty (for instance, we see a Jewish man attack a woman and stealing her soup during times of starvation).
It allows us to see the Germans and the Jews as human eings instead of categories of good and bad. However, despite the aforementioned, this doesn’t mean the film fails to depict the horrors of daily life in the Warsaw ghetto. We are presented with shockingly horrific scenes of gory and heart-wrenching violence exposed from the Germans which made incredibly hard viewing. Polanski doesn’t hesitate to show us Jews and Jewish children being lined up and shot in the head in the streets as well as a man in a wheelchair being thrown to his death for not standing up, without a flicker from the camera.
It’s scenes like these that make your stomach turn, not only because of what you’re viewing, but the horror of these things that actually happened. It’s scarier than anything you would see in a horror or thriller film. As a character Szpilman is quite relatable – he’s not a hero or a rebel nor trying to be, he’s just an ordinary person trying to survive. Consequently it’s Szpilman’s music that saves his life, with one of the most emotionally moving scenes of the film. We see Szpilman made to play the piano to German captain Wilm Hosenfeld, who discovers his hiding place.
We see humanity in the German Captain after Szpilman plays Choplin. Adrien Brody did a remarkable job of playing Szpilman and completely deserved his Oscar for his part in this film. His body language during his performance spoke volumes, especially during the scenes that he is alone in hiding and can’t speak or make any noise for the fear of giving himself away. He managed to capture emotions of hopelessness, being lost and alone through his facial gestures (while witnessing holocaust events), this was astonishing to observe. Brody managed to make the terrifying loneliness and isolation palpable in this movie.
I wouldn’t recommend this film to everyone as I don’t believe it’s the kind of film that would appeal to everyone’s taste. It is however, an astonishing film that doesn’t judge or try to explain anything, but instead is more a reflection of historical events of one man’s fate. Despite being very hard to watch most of the time, it is an incredibly uplifting film that left me feeling sick and grateful for my life and the freedom we have in today’s society. It’s not a film i’ll watch regularly, or maybe ever again, but it’s a film I’m very pleased i’ve watched.