The Pianist (2002)

It’s not surprising that Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor, has, at long last, made a Holocaust movie. It’s also not surprising that this film, The Pianist, makes use of some generic elements (looming overcoated Nazis, ashen-faced Jewish victims), or that it is winning international accolades, including the 2002 Palme d’Or. What is surprising is the devastating quiet of the film itself. Though it hardly shies away from showing explicit acts of aggression and abject fear, it is focused on one stone survivor, the pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody).

Confronted by one horror after another, Szpilman is a startlingly original film protagonist. Unable to rage visibly or fight back in any coherent way, he grieves, seethes, and agonizes. At the same time, he is also unable to fathom the hugeness of the events taking place around him, and so, his survival is not the result of strategy and foresight, but of persistence. He must learn to repress his rage and fear, repress himself into a state of wrenching and profound quiet. As inspirational as his survival might seem in hindsight, the film reveals that it was a function of his capacity to disappear, to hide away so deeply and so determinedly that he remained undetected, for years.

Based on Szpilman’s memoirs, published in 1946 and adapted by British playwright Ronald Harwood, The Pianist traces an unimaginable internal evolution. It opens in September 1939, introducing the young artist as he is playing a Chopin nocturne for a Warsaw Radio broadcast. Szpilman plays on, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that life is already changed forever, that the Germans have invaded Poland weeks before, that bodies now litter the streets. The Luftwaffe starts bombing the city, and while his engineer runs for cover, he plays on until a shell destroys the wall, and he sees that he will, indeed, have to leave the building.

Again and again, Szpilman and his family (two sisters, a hothead brother, and parents) tell themselves that what is happening all around them and to them cannot be happening. Such denials seem foolish and even appalling now, but the film also makes them chillingly understandable: what lies before them and the other 500,000 Jews in Warsaw — is too incredible. Tragically, the family stays in their apartment, until they are forcibly removed to the ghetto.

At this point they also hear stories of acquaintances carted away to “labor camps,” and see their neighbors murdered in the night (the Nazis throw one old man in a wheelchair from his upper story window, then shoot his relatives as they run down the street). Still, the Szpilmans are frozen, unable to act. And so, they wait, until they too are moved to a barracks, and then into train cars to take them to a camp. As they walk to the station, Szpilman tells one sister that he wishes he had known her better.

With this sort of detail, so fine and so revealing, The Pianist invites you to comprehend Szpilman’s predicament — or better, his thinking about it. As he walks toward what viewers know is his certain death, the young man voices his family’s collective terror as regret, regret for a lack of effort, for a banal sense of privilege and safety. His story takes an unpredictable turn here, when Itzak Heller (Roy Smiles), an old acquaintance now working (collaborating) with the auxiliary police, sends him running from the train he and his family are about to board.

Stunned at first, Szpilman stumbles through the streets, then is absorbed into a ghetto work detail. Here again, he does what he’s told: the Nazis work their prisoners to exhaustion, then bring in “new,” only slightly less beleaguered men; Szpilman watches in shock as one officers lines up a crew face down on the ground, shooting each with a single bullet to the head, one by one, so that each knows exactly what’s headed his way.

In order to make a narrative of such seemingly endless and surely unnarratable atrocities, the film takes Szpilman’s view, showing what he sees — a child smuggler killed as he tries to slip under the ghetto wall; a starving man licking spilled slop off the pavement; a woman weeping for the loss of her child, whom she smothered to keep quiet as the Nazis passed by. Polanski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman hardly linger on any of these images. Such events occur with increasing frequency, so that each torment is soon overlaid by another.

The rest of the film tracks Szpilman’s pains to survive, event by event, crash by crash, not so much building to a climax as demonstrating the delirium of existing day to day as a kind of shadow person. At last, he escapes the ghetto, with the help of a resistance group and a gentile acquaintance from before the war, a singer (Ruth Platt) and her actor husband (Ronan Vibert). Meaning infinitely well, they arrange for him to hide in a vacant apartment, where he must be invisible and silent. Occasionally, someone brings food, but more often, not. In one remarkable sequence, Szpilman watches the 1943 ghetto uprising from an apartment window as if it’s a movie. A fixed long shot displays shots fired, bodies falling, smoke and chaos.

Forced to evacuate when a shell crashes through the building (a scene that recalls that first scene at Warsaw Radio), Szpilman eventually finds shelter back inside the ghetto, now mostly rubble and emptied-out buildings. And now his only self-assigned mission is to keep out of sight. While the “action,” such as it is, now decreases, the film becomes almost unbearably acute, approximating (though of course, never precisely representing) the man’s internal state, his process of internalization. Alone, afraid, shrinking inside his clothes, Szpilman reflects the debris-strewn streets and collapsed structures that surround him. His view becomes even narrower, literally looking through cracked windows and holes in walls, even, at one time, from the street where he lies still, playing dead as soldiers clomp past him.

His simultaneous disappearance and resilience is perfectly captured in a late scene when Szpilman is discovered by a German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann). Each man is equally shocked to see the other, and by this time, having spent so much time alone with Szpilman, now near-starved to death, his hair hanging in clumps off skull, his skin pale and gray, you share his alarm. On learning that Szpilman is a pianist, the officer commands him to “play something” on the instrument that so happens — so bizarrely — to stand before them. Szpilman can only do what he is told, as outrageous as it seems. He bows his head, focused on the keys before him, and lets loose his music, again Chopin. Initially standing at imposing attention, Hosenfeld suddenly sits, struck speechless. The light filters through dust and filthy windows, seeming to show through him, his face, fingers, and nose so frail as to be translucent.

These pieces of the man, presented in quick, poignant shots, convey too many emotions at once — fear, certainly, but also excitement, dignity, rage, rapture, depression, disbelief, and debilitation. Hosenfeld is so moved that he helps Szpilman to hide in the very building where he and his men establish, very briefly, a headquarters, leaving him bits of food. And when the Germans retreat some weeks later, chased off by the approaching Soviets, Hosenfeld leaves Szpilman his large overcoat, with requisite insignias (he claims that he has a second coat, one that’s warmer, anyway). Shot at by his would-be rescuers, who mistake the coat for the enemy’s, Szpilman, so long immersed in silence, is at first unable to speak. “Why the coat?” asks one troop. Szpilman musters all his strength to croak, “I’m cold.”

It’s a funny, dreadful moment, like many in The Pianist but also not. The singularity of each event makes them string together only barely, as Szpilman deteriorates but keeps on. His attenuation — Szpilman’s diminished view, his simultaneous dread of seeing and need to see, his embodiment of an uncanny sort of “negative space” — is the movie’s most astounding effect. Brody’s physical and emotional reduction is an unforgettable aspect of this effect. Even more extraordinary is The Pianist‘s paring away of film’s presumed capacity to elucidate and illustrate, to make experience visual, in obvious, spectacular ways. Here, what you don’t see easily, what you struggle to see, is crucial.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.