Every survivor has a story, and few are as compelling as that of Władysław “Władek” Szpilman, the Polish composer and musician whose autobiography is the basis for Roman Polanski’s 2002 film, The Pianist. Szpilman is a beloved figure of modern Polish culture, his many themes still popular more than ten years after his death in 2000 at the age of 88. His life can be viewed as one of ultimate triumph, his spirit not cripplingly embittered by his experience in the Warsaw ghetto. Viewing this film has only served to whet my appetite for Szpilman’s autobiography, to see if I can discover afresh in print some of the philosophical underpinnings that Polanski developed, and that I cherish, in the film version. The fact that it is usually the other way around with books and film only enhanced my enjoyment and respect for this film treatment.
Most people have seen The Pianist, but I hadn’t until recently, for two fairly straightforward reasons. First, since viewing Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary, Shoah, about twenty years ago, I had been unable to watch another film about the Holocaust. That film, in a word, did me in. The other reason was my own mini-protest against Roman Polanski for reasons that are all too well-known and which won’t bear any fruit upon repeating. Thus, it isn’t for me to write much about the plot of a film that is already ten years old, other than to say it is a frank and almost unrelentingly bleak story of survival against overwhelming odds.
In a sense, I already knew the outer shape of the story, how from 1940 until 1943 the Jews of Warsaw were rounded up and walled into a ghetto where most of them either succumbed to starvation or disease, were slaughtered in the streets or their homes, or were shipped to Treblinka. Annihilation, if you can begin to imagine it, by as many means as you can conjure. All of that is here within Polanski’s film.
Then there is the pianist, Szpilman, the man whose characterization is so deftly carried by Adrien Brody. Szpilman is a man whose temperament, upbringing, talent, and an intersection with luck combine to keep him alive. It is the character of Szpilman which fills the story and makes The Pianist complete and outstanding. Early in the film, even as his career playing piano for Polish radio is abruptly curtailed, Brody’s Szpilman is a man who maintains a gentility and posture that never becomes defensive. Szpilman is open, eager, and never attempts to hide who he is as a man, even though much of the film depends upon the suspense that revolves around his physical status as a person in hiding. He is vulnerable in the most painstaking, important sense of the word, and there are not many cinematic or literary themes more exciting for me than a subtle portrayal of a person who chooses to remain vulnerable in places which would seem to demand otherwise.
Within The Pianist lies the question of dignity and whether it is better to mount a fight and perhaps die on more even terms, or whether, even if it means clinging to the boots of a man who has just delivered a beating, the ultimate proof of strength is to be found in letting go of defense. Survival, not of the most powerful, but of the most human.
This brings me to the scene I would like to freeze and make permanent in my mind. It comes near the end, when Szpilman is found by a German officer who may or may not harm him. Polanski’s skill allows the viewer to feel the exposure, cold, hunger, and fear that he himself certainly knew as a child and that Brody projects so well as an actor. When the well groomed, crisply uniformed German forces the starving Pole to play the piano for him, there is nothing to do but smile at the defiance in Szpilman’s choice of Ballade No.1 in G Minor by Chopin, that most romantic and emotional, and Polish, of all composers. It is a moment which flings the sensibility and beauty of art into the face of all which is supposed to be true but is only a puffed up lie. What happens after that is the reason you should see The Pianist.