In “The Pianist,” director Roman Polanski reveals the struggles that Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew and talented pianist, must endure as he struggles for survival in WWII Warsaw.
As all that he has known and loved is torn from him, including his entire family and way of life, Mr. Szpilman must resort to any means necessary in order to cling to life. In spite of his extreme caution and his extraordinary will to survive, it is ultimately his good fortune that sustains him, not his courage or valor. If not for the good will of Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, Mr.
Szpilman would surely have perished in the closing days of the war, notwithstanding his amazing endurance. Mr. Szpilman’s plight was all too common in the early 1940s due to the hate and racism that permeated Nazi rule of occupied territories during World War Two. In order to rise to power in the tumultuous political atmosphere enveloping Germany following the devastation of the First World War, Adolf Hitler established the Jewish people as the national scapegoat. Unable to deal with their own difficulties directly, the German citizens readily accepted this explanation.
After rapidly ascending to a position of authoritarian power, Hitler proclaimed the supremacy of the Aryan race and began his totalitarian reign by preparing to wage war on the whole European continent. Poland made an easy first target for his unprecedented Blitzkrieg offensive, and Warsaw, as the capital city, was rapidly occupied by German troops. These events set the stage for half a decade of Jewish persecution throughout not only Poland, but almost all of Europe as well. These are the years which Wladyslaw records in his autobiography and which Roman Polanski relates in The Pianist. In his struggle to survive the Nazi occupation and decimation of Warsaw, Mr.
Szpilman experiences incredible agonies brought upon him by various conflicts, both internal and external. Externally he is daily in direct conflict with the Nazis. On one occasion he tries to help a young boy get under the ghetto wall before the boy is bludgeoned to death, but, sadly, his rescue attempt fails. Another evening Szpilman can only watch with his family as a crippled neighbor in a wheelchair is thrown from a window to his death because he was unable to stand and salute the German officers.
The feeling of helplessness, of resignation to fate, which commonly consumes individuals in such traumatic situations, is only held off by Szpilman through his own tireless activity and personal commitment to behave virtuously. While working in the labor force he risks his own safety on a daily basis by secretly relaying weapons to the Polish resistance. Even as his family is being led away to their deaths he does his best to resist being separated from them. In response to the external conflicts which the Germans authorities force upon him, Szpilman does all that he can reasonably be expected to do in order to frustrate their murderous intentions.
In this manner Szpilman actually brings about his own personal resolution to the internal conflicts, the conflicts of conscience that arise when he must make hard decisions regarding which course of action to take, that he faces. Although he displays amazing strength in overcoming such inner turmoil in order to live as well as he can given the circumstances, Szpilman still cannot reach a wholly satisfying resolution to any of the conflicts that he faces. In spite of all of his efforts, his entire family is dead; Warsaw, the only home he has ever known, has been razed. The war is over, but it is a dry and empty hope that is left for the living; they can rebuild, but so much that was held so dear has been lost that nothing can ever be as it was before the war; the prewar world has been lost forever. Such a grim ending is undoubtedly unsatisfying, but any other outcome would have been unjustifiable plot manipulation, especially given the historical context of the film. In order to effectively portray the gruesome reality of World War Two the film had to end with nothing more than a sense of bleak, immaterial hope; there could be no truly happy ending.
Due to its poignantly realistic portrayal of life under the Nazi regime, The Pianist enjoys a milieu of critical acclaim. From the very beginning of his review, James Berardinelli unabashedly proclaims the film’s greatness: “To lump The Pianist in with all of the other Holocaust stories brought to the screen does a great disservice to this powerful, compelling motion picture” (n. p. ). Although he goes on to support his bold claims, Berardinelli does not offer any refutations to the film’s criticisms; by merely delineating the film’s strengths he does not present a whole picture of the film for the potential moviegoer. Many, for example, find the film’s rather detached quality to be detrimental; they believe that a sense of urgency would make the film even more powerful.
Although Berardinelli does not take this into consideration because he does not want to produce an ambiguous review, Roger Ebert proves himself worthy of his great reputation as a film critic by incorporating this apparent weakness into a more complete analysis of the film. Rather than viewing the rather aloof narration as compromising the film’s urgency, Ebert notes that “almost all of the Jews involved in the Holocaust were killed, so all of the survivor stories misrepresent the actual event by supplying an atypical ending” (n. p. ).
In this respect the bleak, emotionless, utterly desolate narration is a better representation of reality; it better communicates the film’s message: that although some survive while others die, no one saves himself in such a disastrous scenario; all are equally, completely vulnerable. All that distinguishes one individual from the next is how he deals with the emotionally draining and physically overwhelming situation into which he has been forced. What makes The Pianist such a powerful film is that, despite Szpilman’s amazing inner strength and will to survive, it “refuses to turn Szpilman’s survival into a triumph and records it primarily as the story of a witness who was there, saw, and remembers” (Ebert n. p. ).
Roger Ebert’s review is more powerful than Berardinelli’s not because he arrives at a different conclusion about the film’s quality, but because he touches upon the very essence of the film: its theme. Throughout The Pianist individuals are desperately hoping to keep themselves alive through restless activity, including Mr. Szpilman. No one, however, survives because of his own virtues or efforts; in the end every man lives or dies according to the whim of Lady Luck. Mr.
Szpilman records for posterity, for instance, the experience of the mother in the Umschlagplatz, who smothered her only child in an unsuccessful effort to prevent her own capture. Mr. Szpilman himself only escapes death in the closing days of the war because Captain Wilm Hosenfeld pities Szpilman and provides for his needs until the war’s conclusion. The Pianist, therefore, stands as a testament not only to the horrors of World War Two, but also as a reminder of how transient and fragile life is. Nothing is permanent; nothing can be taken for granted. Although Szpilman’s incredible endurance and commitment to living nobly in the face of such hardship is noteworthy, there is no feeling that a triumph of the human spirit has been portrayed.
As noted earlier, Szpilman resolves the conflicts he is forced to confront as best he can, but even that resolution is ultimately unsatisfying. The film draws its strength not from such melodrama, but from a truthful and uncompromising portrayal of the harsh realities of war, survival, human nature, and, fundamentally, life. The Pianist is a very powerful film. By stringing together a series of poignant scenes as part of a coherent tale of one man’s survival in Warsaw during World War Two, it forces viewers to contemplate the meaning behind such suffering and cruelty. It is hard to come to terms with the loss of even one friend or family member. Questions materialize regarding the purpose of every individual’s existence and quickly escalate to pondering the meaning of existence itself; why was man ever created?When coming to terms with the needless suffering and death of millions of people further questions regarding the origin of human cruelty, apathy, and pain, as well as human compassion, endurance, and joy, quickly surface.
The true value of The Pianist, then, is not in the questions that it answers for the viewer, but in the significance of the questions that it brings to the viewer’s attention. In struggling to answer these questions the viewer enhances his self-knowledge and begins to find his own answers to the fundamental questions of life. This is what makes The Pianist a truly remarkable and valuable film.
“The Pianist. ” Top 100 All-Time. 2002. 13 Nov. 2004.
. Ebert, Roger. “The Pianist. ” SunTimes. com.
3 Jan. 2003. Chicago Sun-Times. 13 Nov. 2004. .
The Pianist. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Adrien Brody. Focus Features, 2002.
Szpilman, Wladyslaw. The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survivalin Warsaw, 1939-1945. Trans. Anthea Bell.
New York: Picador, 1999.