Poignant and to the point, Roman Polanski’s 2002 The Pianist, a truly modern masterwork that manages to blend the experience of millions of Jews into the story of a gifted Polish musician, delves deep into the core of Homo Sapiens, placing an awkward mirror in front of us.
The horrific crimes committed by the Nazis during World War II serve as reminders of the human potential for evil. A potential, as Hannah Arendt understood, inherent in us all. For the Holocaust – or for that matter, any witch-hunt throughout the course of history – would not be possible without the willingness of good and ordinary people. Historical awareness might somehow give us the illusion of a distance between those people and ourselves, but it can’t prevent any of us from acting the exact same way if circumstances arise.
At the outset of World War II, Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody) lives in Warsaw with his parents, two sisters and brother. Though the laws passed by the Nazis against the Jews are increasingly harsh and the family’s resources are decreasing rapidly, the Szpilmans still live in a spacious house and are more comfortable than most of their fellow Jews. In 31st October 1940 that changes when they are forced – with the whole Jewish contingent in the city – to move to a purposefully small area of Warsaw. Isolated inside the ghetto and unwilling to compromise their principles, Władysław and his family live a dreadful existence.
In August 1942, Szpilman gets separated from his family during Operation Reinhard, when his parents, his brother and his sisters are transported to Treblinka to be killed. As an able-bodied man, Szpilman becomes a slave-worker for the Nazi machine, helping the resistance all along. When it all becomes too unbearable for him, Władysław goes into hiding with the help of non-Jewish friends. Inside locked apartments, he starves, gets seriously ill and feels generally powerless about the destruction around him. Eventually he escapes and hides in the attic of an abandoned house but is discovered by Nazi officer Hosenfelt, who lets him stay there. After the war, Szpilman resumes his career as a classical pianist.
..The Pianist Trailer © Focus Features.
The film manages to distill the essence of the horrific Nazi posture towards their perceived enemies and the Jewish struggle against the brutality of their oppressors into a quintessential story. Polanski pulls an extraordinary trick here, making a movie that tells a well-documented story and yet it seems so fresh. Horrors like the ones depicted in the film uncover mankind’s schizophrenic nature. Most disturbing still, it is to think that the willingness to commit acts of cruelty that violate our most sacred principles might stem from the same human instinct to conform. Both are patterns of behaviour that originate from deep-seated insecurity.
Perhaps the ingrained way in which power is gained through violence and man’s unwillingness to challenge the few who always dominate the many isn’t due to lack of courage but instead to mankind’s propensity for conformism. There’s an emblematic scene in the film when Szpilman is trotting on the street with other slave-workers and is made to stop by a Nazi commanding officer, who pulls eight men out of the line. They are made to lay down on the ground and, one by one, are executed with a shot in the head. Before shooting the last man, the Nazi runs out of bullets and as he changes his pistol cartridge, the man laying on the ground just looks expectant, motionless, waiting to be killed. One wonders if it is only fear that guides that man’s behaviour.
Why doesn’t he react? He’s witnessed what happened to the others in the last few seconds and knows exactly what’s coming to him. Why doesn’t he get up and fight? And at this moment, the awareness arises. Sitting behind a computer screen in the comfortable 21st Century, I dare raise rational questions out of a cataclysm in human history when the only rational response would be to despair. Lest we be too harsh on him, it is necessary to acknowledge that most of us would probably do the same. Who in their honest mind can deny that? Perhaps that’s the main reason we all enjoy the hero story, for it is lacking within us. It is therefore fitting that The Pianist tells a tale with very little acts of overt heroism, and might be claiming that thoughts of dissent are more significant than pure acts of rebellion.
Acts of rebellion that Szpilman constantly witnesses around him and in the end, confronted with the mighty force of the Nazi military machine become futile, almost tragic-comic in their attempt to overcome their better armed enemy. Perhaps at the time of the events, when one is right in the eye of the storm, it is truly impossible to understand things as they really are. With the benefit of hindsight we might come to grasp the notion that the biggest victory one could inflict against the Nazis was indeed to survive, to endure against the odds, to stay alive long after the regime and its followers were all gone. And that’s what Władysław Szpilman did. He only wanted to play the piano on Polish radio…
People with a shallow disposition might find his story not worth telling but it is in fact the only one necessary, for in order to understand the absurdity of the Nazi experience in Europe one must put aside heroic archetypes and deal instead with down-to-earth characters. As flawed as humanly possible, Szpilman is the perfect antithesis to the infantile and utopian Nazi ideology.