When he was 7 years old, Roman Polanski escaped the Kracow ghetto by crawling through a hole in a brick wall. This image is recreated in The Pianist, his new film about wartime survival in the Warsaw ghetto, but with a horrifyingly different outcome. Polanski surely has been haunted by his narrow escape from evil at such a young age, and perhaps by including this scene of what could have been his fate, there's an acknowledgement of his own random good fortune.
This is only a minor episode in The Pianist, but it's a typically sharp scene that could only have been produced by one who has seen it. Thus, Polanski is the logical person to make this film, based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish Polish pianist and composer who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.
Polanski has waited all his life to dramatize the events of his youth and The Pianist shows him in fine form as a cinematic craftsman. If the new film lacks the originality, lurking anger and perverse sexuality of his early work, it's only because his historical subject is such an abomination all on its own.
What is curious about his new film is that the pianist of the film's title is such a passive figure. It's hard to call him a hero--he simply survived, and not always honorably. Although this limits our sympathies with Szpilman as a heroic movie subject, it does make him entirely believable as a human being.
Szpilman (called Wladek by intimates) was well-known prior to the war as a composer and live performer on Polish radio. Indeed, the film opens in 1939, with Adrien Brody's Wladek playing Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp Minor, literally until the station's transmissions are cut off by the German bombs.
As we learn, however, Wladek's insistence on staying on the radio has less to do with physical courage or political principle than the simple fact that he is a musician and nothing more.
In short order, Poland capitulates to Hitler. By now, we all know the major steps on our descent into the Shoah, and the early scenes tick them off: the false hopes raised by the entry of Britain and France into the fray, the restrictions on Jewish economic activities, the order to wear the Star of David armband, the relocation into the ghetto. Finally, there's the ominous talk of trains and camps, before the slaughter begins, as it always does.
At first, the Szpilman family is hopeful that they'll weather the political convulsions, but in short order, they are relocated to the infamous Warsaw ghetto, which would eventually be packed with more than 500,000 Polish Jews. Outside the ghetto, the gentile criminals divide up the confiscated Jewish property--a lot of loot, considering that Jews comprised one-third of Warsaw's population.
As the family artist, Wladek is also the most politically disengaged, to the frequent displeasure of his brother Henryk. We see the ways that people collaborate with the Germans, whether by joining the official Jewish police force or performing, as Wladek does, in a nightclub patronized by armband-wearing profiteers.
The scenes of ghetto life are convincingly staged: Amid chaos, crime and misery, a certain daily routine emerges, and people begin to cope as well as they could. (However, one scene shows Jews at a military checkpoint, waiting to be allowed out of the ghetto to work. It would be interesting to know if Polanski intended this scene to resemble a tableau from contemporary Gaza.)
The ghetto remained in existence for over two years before Germans began "liquidating" the district in July 1942 by deporting the occupants to Treblinka. While the rest of the Szpilman family is taken away, Wladek is left behind to work as a laborer with other able-bodied males.
What follows is simply the true story of a morally ordinary man. Too frail in body and weak in spirit to be of much use among the laborers (and plotters) that remained in the ghetto, Wladek slips out and goes into hiding, with the assistance of sympathetic gentile friends from his former life as a musician.
Ironically, his friends deposit him into an apartment right next to the ghetto, on the other side of the brick wall that demarcates the district. From the safety of this apartment, Wladek watches with horror and shame as his former compatriots carry out their courageous, doomed revolt--the famous uprising that began in April 1943, and was put down a month later. Almost no Jews survived the subsequent recapture of the ghetto.
"I should have been there, fighting alongside them," he murmurs to Dorota, his blond protectress and thwarted love interest. It's the correct, honorable sentiment, but there's no conviction in it. Wladek knows that he is not a brave man. He only wants to play music.
After the destruction of the ghetto, there are virtually no Jews left in Warsaw (fewer than 20, in fact), and Wladek's life becomes a quest for food and shelter. Indeed, Wladek becomes little more than an animal among the ruins of Warsaw, nosing around for sustenance and warmth. As the rapidly deteriorating Wladek, Brody's face and body seemingly shrivel into nothing--he is only a pair of haunted, sad eyes staring out of a sack of bones.
This is the creature that is eventually discovered by the sleek, blond Capt. Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), wearing the standard-issue Nazi riding boots and jodhpurs. The film's emotional centerpiece emerges when Hosenfeld asks Wladek to play the piano for him. And so Wladek does, playing Chopin's Ballad No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23, at first stiffly but then with a virtuosity that the officer recognizes.
As Capt. Hosenfeld, Kretschmann puts a human face on the Hitler-era German. Hosenfeld is the "good German," a man of decency and refinement who, in the war's final weeks, comes to realize the horror that he has helped perpetrate.
It's a beautiful scene, but it also has an ironic effect that I'm not sure Polanski intended. Although Polanski is clearly invoking the ideal of universal brotherhood with this sequence (the same theme that more successfully undergirded Renoir's The Grand Illusion), the optimism of the moment is tempered by the ordinariness of the two men, both of whom are trying merely to survive the war.
But culture and civilization must be preserved by those willing to die defending it, and the essential decency of these two men isn't enough. Although Szpilman, unlike Hosenfeld, is a blameless victim--along with 6 million dead Jews--there's little in his story that marks him as extraordinary, other than the incredible fact that he lived to tell his tale.
But on the other hand, there's no denying that, confronted with the choices of a deadly time, most of us are more likely to resemble Szpilman or Hosenfeld, quietly struggling to stay alive another day and making debatable (or despicable) compromises along the way. When faced with conditions where choosing to act is tantamount to choosing to die, it is human nature to choose not to act.
Polanski's film isn't a bold or revisionist one, but it scrupulously recreates the terror of a time when the great nation of Goethe, Hegel and Bach, and of such Jews as Heine, Marx and Mahler) chose to employ its modern military, scientific and industrial capabilities to gratify bestial impulses. And through Wladek's eyes, we bear witness, too.