The Pianist

In Roman Polanksi’s 1976 ghost film, The Tenant, the director himself plays the central character, Trelkovsky, who finds himself senselessly persecuted by the bizarre and menacing residents of the apartment block he has moved into. Though set in contemporary Paris, the decaying apartment block hauntingly suggests an older Europe. And with a cast of stern and cold septuagenarians in supporting roles – Melvyn Douglas, Lila Kedrova and Jo Van Fleet – the tenants too seem to emerge from a past bourgeois age. Polanski plays Trelkovsky as a wide-eyed and slightly dull man, an innocent like Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial. His ensuing madness seems to arise not so much from the spectral visions he glimpses through his apartment window at night, but from his inability to fathom his fellow tenants’ contempt for him. There is black comedy in Trelkovsky’s endless attempts to win over the old dinosaurs in the apartment block. The Tenant never quite finally works: the dubbing is atrocious and Isabelle Adjani is woefully miscast. But it has always struck me, nevertheless, as an interesting work and a film imbued with a sense of unnameable horror. Trelkovsky’s persecution, in its senselessness and cruel persistency, cannot help but suggest the European tragedies of World War II.

It is possible that one of Polanski’s greatest gifts as a filmmaker has been to convincingly investigate evil on screen. He is one of the great directors of horror but the power of his films comes from essaying evil as psychological and as existing in the everyday. The coven of witches and warlocks in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are banal, middle-class and unexotic. In Chinatown (1974), evil exists within the very economic foundations of the birth of Los Angeles and it exists in the nature of family itself. A survivor of the Warsaw ghetto himself, and a man whose fame has been inexorably linked to the violent murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, and to charges of statutory rape in the USA, Polanski’s greatest works have all been imbued with the pervasiveness of violence and fear. His latest work, The Pianist (2002), is an adaptation of the biography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish musician who survived the Ghetto and World War II.

I have to admit to an initial reluctance in seeing this film. Having thought that Polanski had offered a vision of persecution in The Tenant that ably resonated with the history of anti-Semitism and World War II, I wondered what possibly could be gained in recreating the Warsaw Ghetto on film. I think it is important to investigate the nature of this reluctance, for it is echoed in many people’s responses to hearing about the film. As a friend said, cruelly but also aptly, “Not another train-into-Auschwitz-movie”. I think this response touches on the fraught legacy of the Holocaust, not historically, but as a continuing theme in popular culture and art. The greatest examinations of the Holocaust have come from documentary and from non-fiction. Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955) and Ophul’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1971) are the most important film works to deal with the calamities of World War II. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, as an investigation, and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, as a testament, are so much more crucial than any number of fictional texts that have attempted to take the Holocaust as their theme. I don’t necessarily agree with Theodor Adorno’s proposition that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism, but to make sense of the vast tragedy of the Holocaust requires a rigorous commitment to history, and that’s not something we necessarily equate with great narrative filmmakers. It is, however, a commitment that is shared by documentarians.

The failure of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) was that in attempting to create a masterwork out of the experience of the death camps, it ended up reducing European Jewish experience to archetypes of suffering and to negate, once again, the complexity of difference, to make the Jews again nothing but a number. The six million plus one list. That doesn’t mean the film doesn’t get to you, that it doesn’t move an audience, but it reduces history to the battle of good versus evil and that isn’t the story of European anti-Semitism nor is it the story of World War II. Attempting to make the Holocaust the master-narrative of human war and suffering gets us nowhere. As Shoah illustrates, it was the consequence of specific European histories and struggles, rooted in defined religious differences and hatreds, and emerging from individual national and cultural identities. For me, the best fictional films that have grappled with the Holocaust as a thematic have been the ones which frame their stories around particular individuals and communities. Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974) comes to mind as an outstanding fictional film about the War but that film’s study of anti-Semitism is secondary to its exploration of betrayal and resistance. It may be a distasteful term, but Holocaust Genre films, narrative films that take on the Holocaust as a backdrop, such as Schindler’s List or Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974), seem to dishonour the enormity of history by asking us to imagine heroes and villains, love stories and mortal combats. There are historic calamities whose scale is Biblical, or if you like, mythical and tragic. The Holocaust is one such event. So are the Armenian Genocide, the Soviet Gulag and the contemporary struggle of the Palestinians. There is folly in a filmmaker or a writer attempting to create a fictional story that can do justice to such events. Herzog did it in Aguirre: Wrath of God (1977) when it came to telling the story of the colonisation of the Americas. But Aguirre is a mad hallucination of a film. Can it be done within the confines of classical narrative cinema; can it be done by the kind of films that win Academy Awards? I would have said no.

The above is all apropos to Polanski’s feat in The Pianist in creating an account of Polish Jewish experience in World War II that manages to be both illuminating, historically faithful, and definitive. I have seen documentary footage of the Warsaw Ghetto and part of Polanski’s achievement is to not attempt to recreate for us the astonishing and horrific images of death and decay that were caught by documentarians. Instead, we are offered an initially intimate portrait of Szpilman and through his eyes we begin to slowly understand the magnitude of the violence occurring around him. The Pianist works by maintaining a coolly detached view of the events in the Ghetto. We are placed in the position of observers of horror, and because so much of the Nazi terror depended on maintaining a climate of fear, we come to understand completely what allowed the horrors of the Holocaust to occur. The majority of The Pianist is filmed within closed rooms, claustrophobic spaces in which Szpilman and his family need to hide. Even when outdoors in the Ghetto, we are aware of the walls and the regulations which dictate movement for the Warsaw Jews. The film begins just before the invasion of Poland by Germany and ends with the liberation of the country by the Soviet army. At first Szpilman’s experiences are more humiliating than they are coercive or violent: the introduction of Nazi Race Laws, the requirement to sow the Star of David on his clothing. Then the Ghetto walls are built. And then, the trains arrive to take the Jews to the death camps in the East.

The Pianist

In the film’s first hour Polanski manages to create a complex view of the world in the Warsaw Ghetto. Initially we see things through Szpilman’s family’s eyes, those of the educated secular bourgeoisie. Their first reaction is to believe that they will soon be saved, and to hide their money and their possessions from the invading Germans. With the building of the Ghetto walls we then witness the family’s interactions among the disparate layers of Jewish society. For a period there is a simulation of class in the Ghetto, a developing black market economy, a vast difference in the extremes of suffering between that of the peasant and proletarian Jews and that of the richer members of the Ghetto. Szpilman becomes witness to increasingly terrible events: an old man hungrily licks spilt soup from a gutter, there are indiscriminate shootings, and finally, in a scene that recalls the paranoid hallucinatory world of The Tenant, Szpilman’s family watches Nazi soldiers drop a man in a wheelchair out of the apartment window opposite. The inexorable Nazi reduction of European Jewry to first outsider, then to prisoner and finally to objects of extermination is made again shocking, tears right through us, precisely because in the first hour of the film we have seen the Polish Jews maintain the conviction that they are individual, classed, distinguishable by difference. In one of the film’s greatest scenes, the inhabitants of the ghetto are rounded up in a square, waiting to board the death trains. The light in this scene burns orange and though the same detached mise en scène is at work, we are again in the position of observer, the effect is to create a vision of Hell on Earth that is as powerful as any expressionist vision I have ever seen in film. The image of the frightened, cowed figures occupying the square has the sculptural dignity and humanity of a classical tableau. In this moment, Polanski achieves an expression beyond what the documentaries of the Warsaw Ghetto have given us: this is visually a dirge, a lament, for the mass murder of souls. This is also the moment where Polanski’s commitment to eschew sentiment or melodrama, to maintain his studied detachment, comes together and makes complete sense. We have seen people attempt to maintain a façade of pre-war normality in conditions of madness and cruelty, and then, finally, we arrive at a moment where we see them entering the calamity which is the Final Solution and they have their humanity – their pride, their vanities, their hopes – stripped from them. Polanski’s achievement in this scene is something I thought, as I argued above, was not possible. He creates an appropriately mythic representation to the enormity of the crime the Nazis perpetrated against the European Jews, a representation that is not absurdist and mad, but classical and universal in its terrible melancholy beauty.

Polanski is ably supported in his vision by the performance of Adrien Brody as Szpilman. At first, his character annoyed me. Szpilman, at the beginning of The Pianist, is a vain twit, someone whose musical talent has been acknowledged and rewarded. He flirts proudly with his blonde Gentile Polish girlfriend; he has a slightly supercilious air as he wanders the Warsaw streets. Szpilman is not at all heroic and Brody resists the attempts to make him a conventional hero. Part of the film’s power resides in watching Szpilman lose his bourgeois mannerisms as the years of the war drag on. Finally he is reduced to an animal state, surviving as best he can from being caught by the Germans. From the shaved immaculate dressed dandy we see at the beginning of the movie, he becomes a bedraggled emaciated ghost, hiding in an abandoned bombed building, nursing a can of gherkins close to him. In the film’s pivotal scene, an SS Officer catches him and Szpilman tells him that he is a pianist. The Officer, played by Thomas Kretschmann, knows that the war is near its end. He asks Szpilman to play him some music. The handsome Aryan beauty of the Officer, his uniform perfectly fitting, is contrasted with the almost animal state to which suffering has reduced Szpilman. It is as if Hitler’s racist vision has been realised in this contrast. It is, finally, Szpilman’s ability to play wonderful music that moves the Officer. He spares Szpilman his life. As the Soviet’s enter the city we see Szpilman emerge into a Warsaw bombed to oblivion. The human figure is reduced to anonymity in the seemingly endless vista of ruin and devastation.

There is an astonishing wickedness in the above scene, a perverse black humour which finally connects The Pianist to much of Polanski’s previous work. Polanski makes it clear that it is opportunity and chance that has saved Szpilman’s life. His audacious survival is the result of his talent and his experience as a pianist. This is what saves him from being just another Jew. In refusing to make survival a matter of morality and ethics, but instead a matter of accident, Polanski refutes the rhetoric of Good and of Evil. There are no scenes of Jewish celebration or religion in The Pianist. Instead, being Jewish is another accident of birth, an accident that sealed the horrific fate of millions of Europeans. Polanski, himself a Polish Jew and a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, has made a great narrative war film about a subject many of us thought “untranslatable”. But his vision of Hell is that of an atheist. There is no God in The Pianist, not a hint of Him. This Hell is completely man-made.

About The Author

Christos Tsiolkas is a novelist, playwright, critic and screenwriter. His novels include Loaded, Dead Europe and The Slap. He has been a passionate cineaste since Ivan Hutchinson led him through the looking glass when he was just a little boy.