The Pianist (2002), adapted by Ronald Hardwood from the 1950 book of the same name and directed by Roman Polanski, is a biographical war drama chronicling the experiences of Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) during World War II in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. It recounts the story of how he managed to narrowly survive the state-sponsored, systematic extermination of 6 million Jews.
The first time we see the Szpilman family, they are debating whether or not to effectively depart from Poland. Soon, news breaks about the UK and France joining the allies. Comforted by this fact, the family rejoices and, at last, decides to stay. Unfortunately, as history has made witness, the course of events doesn’t unfold as favourably as the family had figured. They are soon forced into a cramped, disease-ridden ghetto along with the rest of the city’s Jewish community.
The Jews were looked upon as vermin and treated as such. In due course, Wladyslaw is forcibly separated from his family when they are rounded up to be sent to the Treblinka death camp. The sheer suddenness of Szpilman’s solitude is emblematic of the unpredictable arbitrary nature of it all. The imminent survival is scant consolation. It was an anomaly that hinged on a fair amount of good fortune and the compassion of others.
The Atypical System of Depiction
The film is a contemplative, controlled fall into barbarism. It chronicles the gradual, years-long exercise of radical anti-Semitic oppression and the dehumanising process that the Jewish population was subjected to during the Nazi dictatorship. What we now know to be the beginning of the end. We watch the slowly mounting atrocities and marvel at how it all becomes brute fact. The gradual desaturation of the images accents the deteriorating conditions.
The film dispenses with the large canvas of a film like Schindler’s List, and instead, the viewer is put into the subjectivity of a single individual as we become an eyewitness to the horror. The restricted vantage makes it so we only see what he sees and hear what he hears.
Polanski also steers clear of sentiment, lest it overwhelm the tale at hand and get submerged by it. The story is intrinsically remarkable, and any overt assertion of its tragic character would result in counterproductive heavy-handedness. Free of any and all embellishments, each image in the film seems to boil down to its immediate essence.
Working with sheer matter-of-factness, Polanski stays at arm’s length of any showy directorial flourishes, lest it all dip into vulgar exploitation. The camera simply stands back and regards, and it does it without flinching. Long stretches of the film are also almost completely wordless. The film realises that the experience of the Holocaust was not a series of big dramatic highs and lows but a grim reality that stretched day after day, year after year, paralysing people’s ability to deal with it emotionally. The film effectively puts us in the shoes of Wladyslaw, and we feel the paranoia as the deadly game of hide and seek unfolds before our eyes.
The Director is Present
Polanski, who won the Best Director Oscar and whose own experiences in the Krakow ghetto were woven into the adapted screenplay, had been meaning to make a film about that time and place. The sense of urgency in the description of the text was what drew him to the book. In the end, it’s an optimistic and ultimately uplifting book, despite the horror that it describes. The cold objectivity of the vivid details of the text rang true to Polanski, a child of that period.
Polanski remains quite faithful to the source material, but since the book was written more or less like a journal, it rendered the events sketched in it almost unfilmable. So the film puts the dramatic imagination to work, ever so slightly.
Losing his mother to the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Polanski knows the Polish experience during the Nazi occupation firsthand, and the film provides direct parallels to his own experiences as a boy. It makes the film an extremely personal one, blending the memories of the protagonist and the man behind the camera. His recollections help him tell it as it was. No more, no less.
Along with similarities, there were great differences in circumstances as well. Polanski managed to flee from the ghetto and found refuge in the city of Krakow with a peasant’s family. Szpilman, on the other hand, survived in the ruins of the capital.
The atrocities that the European Jews endured are well known to us. However, no film has ever shown them quite in this manner. Polanski here is harkening back to the themes of victimisation and violence that have been hallmarks of his work. But fittingly, the morbid sardonicism is absent this time around.
Portrait of a Crumbling Artist
Adrien Brody became the youngest recipient of the Best Actor Oscar yet for his work in the film. It’s a mostly wordless, gracefully understated performance. Brody gets across the gradual plummet of his mind, body, and soul with deft intensity. This is not a study of war heroism, but of primitive survival instincts and the slump into feral self preservation.
Worn down in body and mind, Wladyslaw in the film puts up with a harrowing transformation, changing from an aloof, ever-so-conceited artist to an emaciated beast, wasting away and reduced to a single instinct: survive.
With the aid of old friends, he finds vacant spots to hide in the city and survives on smuggled food. He bounces from place to place, narrowly escaping death at every opportunity. A piano might be at hand, but he dare not play lest his cover be blown. He takes to playing sonatas in thin air, those anxious fingers touching nothing but air. He is essentially shackled from expressing his greatest love. Pleasures that were probably taken for granted earlier can only be imagined now. Stripped of his ability to play, he is, in a sense, stripped of his identity.
The film makes a point of communicating that one of the reasons Szpilman is able to get by in sticky situations is due to his standing in society. He is treated as something of a valuable commodity, a special case. It’s a despairing blessing, as the rest of the Jews didn’t have the same luxury of leveraging their reputation.
Though this treatment of fellow humans was barely out of sight, the lives of non-Jewish citizens appeared to go on as normal. The film flits between these two worlds and thus paints a picture of a sociopathic society. The inexcusable indifference that raged on during the Holocaust is perhaps a reflection of what we also do in our own lives. Though some traces of humanity always manage to glimmer through the crippling indifference, their actions make all the difference, if only for one of the many.
Szpilman lived to be 88 years old. The film ends with an image of him performing Chopin with a full orchestra. The longing has been long since ended, and the music is real this time.
Where to watch: Pluto TV