THE PIANIST – 2002 – movie – directed by Roman Polanski – based upon an autobiographical book by Wladyslaw Szpilman – screenplay by Ronald Harwood - the players are – Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), Cpt. Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), Samuel Szpilman (Frank Finlay), Dorota (Emilia Fox) - Camera work by Pawel Edelman – editing by – Herve De Luze. Szpilman died before the film was finished. The movie won Oscars for; Best Director, Best Actor (Brody) and Best Screenplay..
I discovered in my research of this period that a lot of the history surrounding these events was more interesting than what was included in the movie, or in Mr. Szpilman’s book. Consequently, you’ll find information and incidents in this review that are missing in both.
The question arises, ‘what is the World’s obligation when a monstrous injustice occurs? We commonly hear the words ‘inhuman’ or ‘subhuman’ applied to the perpetrators of cruel, amoral behavior.
As I’ve pointed out in previous articles, homo sapiens – the most intelligent species to evolve on this planet - is the only group that is known to conduct itself in such a manner. But do not despair, there were many instances of people on both sides in this war who elected to show the moral courage that justifies hope for our species.
As an example of the highest display of commitment and bravery, Dr. Janusz Korczak, a pediatrician, declined several opportunities to escape from the Warsaw ghetto.
He chose to stay with and comfort the two hundred orphans in his charge as they were all transported in cattle trains to their deaths at Treblinka.
Korczak had said, "One does not leave a sick child in the night, and one does not leave children in a time like this."
Poland was the only country under Nazi occupation where it was punishable by death for giving assistance to Jews. Yet there are thousands of instances of Polish families who “adopted” children and shielded Jewish families from their certain death.
Many of these acts were carried out by the Polish resistance. One of the most credited was the Zegota Committee.
To prepare for this role Adrien Brody had about 6 weeks to lose 30 pounds before shooting began. They shot the hunger scenes first. “I felt a huge responsibility because of the nature of this film”, Brody said. During the 7 months of shooting in Poland and Germany he lost possession of his car and his apartment in Manhattan, and gave up all contact with his friends and family.
Brody spent several months practicing the piano so his movements would seem natural.
With just a couple exceptions, for all the hand close ups they substituted those of Janusz Olejniczak. It is Mr. Olejniczak’s piano work you hear on all the tracks except for the last. The piano for that track was a recorded Chopin mazurka performed by Wladyslaw Szpilman.
Polanski’s motivation for making this film was rooted in his own history as a victim of Nazi persecution during the 1930s in Poland. He witnessed the building of the wall that eventually imprisoned all of Krakow’s Jews.
These events mirrored Szpilman’s own experience in Warsaw. Polanski watched as his father and mother were herded down the streets of Krakow, shoved onto trains and shipped off to separate concentration camps.
"Some old woman was crying and wailing in Yiddish — I didn’t quite understand because I did not speak Yiddish,” says Polanski. “And at one moment she was on all fours, and suddenly there was a gun in the hand of that young SS man, and he shot her in the back, and the blood came out, like the little fountain that we have in the offices, you know, a bulb of blood.”
Like many of those who avoided the death camps, Polanski pretended to be Catholic and survived in the city and the countryside by stealing food. When he finally found his father after the war, he learned that his mother had been killed in Auschwitz.
After the war he attended the Lodz Film School where he became an actor before segueing in to directing. In 1969 his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson Family.
Wladyslaw Szpilman studied the piano in the early 1930s in Warsaw and Berlin.
In 1939 he was working for Polish Radio and was playing Chopin’s Nocturne #30 in C-Sharp Minor when German artillery hit the radio station.
The film opens in 1939 on the eve of the German invasion of Warsaw.
They simulated the bombed out city on the site of an old Russian army barracks, and rebuilt the Warsaw Ghetto and the local neighborhoods on Babelsberg Studio backlots.
Just before the Germans crossed their borders there was a brief period of hope when England and France declared war on Germany. However that hope was soon vanquished and the rest of the world stood by.
Following the German invasion, restriction against Jews are increased, they are not allowed access to public parks and restaurants, and were forced off sidewalks and made to walk in the gutters. Many were executed on the mere whim of a passing soldier. A wall around an area designated as the Jewish Ghetto
is erected, property was confiscated and they were forced into small crowded buildings with no facilities. The Szpilmans watched an entire family in an apartment across the street as they are murdered.
Szpilman and others of his family refuse to be recruited by the Judenrat; a Jewish group
organized to enforce Nazi laws imposed upon the residents of the ghetto. He attempts to support his family with the small jobs he gets playing the piano in ghetto cafes.
Eventually he is separated from his family, who were sent to the death camps. He then worked as a laborer and joined the resistance helping to smuggle guns into the ghetto in preparation for the Warsaw Uprising.
After the uprising and for the rest of the war he hid in various bombed out buildings, starving and barely surviving on stolen food.
It was at this time that he was discovered by Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. There was a piano in the building where he was hiding and when Hosenfeld learned that he was a pianist, he asked him to play something; Szpilman chose Chopin’s Balade No. 1.
Visibly moved by his discovery, Hosenfeld showed him a better place to hide and provided him with food until the Russians overran the location.
Szpilman didn’t know his name until 1951. They tried everything they could to get him released, but the Russians refused. Hosenfeld died as a prisoner of war in 1952.
After Szpilman recovers from his experience he remains in Warsaw with his memories and returns to his old job at the Polish National Radio.
As the credits roll, Szpilman is performing with the Warsaw Philharmonic and playing Chopin’s Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op, 22.
Such a difficult subject is stressful for all participants in this production. The level of acting by the cast was visibly enhanced by their dedication to make the story believable and appreciated. It’s veracity was underscored by Roman Polanski’s own life experience during this time and place in history. He was fortunate to have renewed his association with members of a loyal and dependable crew. Pictorially, Pawel Edelman’s fine work behind the camera lends a aura of realism, which was seamlessly stitched together by the skillful hand of the editor Herve De Luze.