The Pianist


Sandra Marek

     The Pianist is an adaptation by Roman Polanski of Wladyslaw Szpilman's Smierc Miasta (Death of a City) , first published in 1945.   Szpilman's book was suppressed by the Communist regime in Poland when it was first published, but it was later published by Wladyslaw Szpilman's son, Andrzej in German as Das wunderbare Uberleben (The miraculous survival ) and then later in English as The Pianist .   Now published in more than thirty different languages, Szpilman's story of survival during the Holocaust has spread throughout the world.

     The Pianist is set in Warsaw, Poland, starting with Wladyslaw Szpilman playing Frederic Chopin's "Nocturne No. 20 in C Sharp Minor" live for the Polish radio as the Germans start bombing Poland.   Later that day when Szpilman's family is packing to leave the country, they find out that Britain has declared war on Germany, and France will soon do likewise.   Upon hearing the news, the Szpilman family decides to stay in Warsaw.   Soon the Germans overtake Warsaw and enforce restrictions on Jews; they make the Jews wear white armbands with the Star of David on them, and force them into a ghetto.   Once the Jews are in the ghetto, the German Nazis abuse, starve, and humiliate them until they are sent off on trains to be exterminated. All of Szpilman's family die this way, but Szpilman is saved by a friend in the Jewish corps that prevents people from escaping before they get on the trains.   Szpilman hides for several days, but eventually he ends up working for the Nazis as part of a Jewish building contingent.   Eventually, Szpilman escapes from the Nazis with the help of friends from an earlier time in his musical career and a fellow conspirator in the Jewish rebellion against the Nazis.   Szpilman hides out for quite a while; he is   compromised twice, forcing him to abandon both hiding places and to scavenge for food in the now-destroyed   ghetto where the Jews used to live.   While Szpilman is hiding in an attic at one house, a German officer, later identified as Hosenfeld, helps him to survive by bringing him food until the German troops retreat from the Russians. It is the Russians who save Szpilman.   At the end of the film, as a Polish musician is spitting curses at the German troops captured by the Allied forces, a German asks the musician to tell Szpilman, whom he had helped in Warsaw, that he is there.   When the musician returns with Szpilman, however, the German troops have been moved, and Hosenfeld has died at an Allied prisoners' camp.   The film ends with Szpilman performing a piano concerto, holding to his promise to Hosenfeld that when he survived, he would once again play the piano.  

     The setting of The Pianist revolves around the suppression and ghettoization of Warsaw during World War II.   In the film, the injustice against the Jews begins as soon as the Germans occupy Poland.   Szpilman is walking down the street with a friend from the Polish radio studio when they decide to get coffee at a shop along the way, but the coffee shop no longer allows Jews on its premises.   Szpilman goes on to talk about further prohibitions against Jews; Jews are not allowed to walk in the parks or sit on public benches.   Furthermore, in the movie, Wladyslaw Szpilman's brother talks about the Germans coming into Jewish houses whenever they wanted to take furniture and valuables on a whim.   Such exploitations are commonly known and discussed when talking about the abuses against the Jews.   All Polish people were required to register their property with the Germans, and in doing so, they gave knowledge of all valuables and property within their possessions that would appeal to the Nazi army.   Once they knew what the people had, the Germans simply had to decree a freezing of Jewish property so that no Jewish property cold be sold, leased, or donated.   Then the Germans simply went to the Jewish homes, generally under duration of the ghettoization of the Jews in Warsaw, to claim what they wanted.   Above the confiscation of Jewish property, however, was the law passed declaring that all Jews had to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David on their right arm displaying that they were Jews.   In The Pianist , this was done by decree of the mayor of Warsaw in the Polish newspaper. There was much discontent within the Jew community   at this proclamation.   Among all the abuses against the Jews, this one struck the hardest because it blatantly distinguished the Jews out from amongst the rest of the Polish people .   This, as historians learned later, allows the Germans to completely and specifically isolate, abuse, and destroy the Jews.

     The most important factor in debasement of the Jews, however, was the seclusion and ghettoization of the Jews in a small area of Warsaw.   Browning, in his The Origins of the Final Solution describes the concentration of Jews in ghettos in cities as a way to better facilitate the "control and later deportation" of Jews.   On November 4, 1939, the Jews of Warsaw were told they had three days in which to move within a certain district of Warsaw, though in reality it took several months to actually establish the Jewish ghetto.   This disrupted the economy of Poland, however, because, as mentioned in The Pianist , 360,000 Jews had to fit in the partitioned-off area of Warsaw and   ultimately in this ghetto were about eighty percent of Warsaw's craftsmen.   Furthermore, after the Jewish population was moved into the apportioned district, a wall was built around the area so as to prevent trade between the Jews and other Poles and Germans.   In The Pianist, the wall around the ghetto went up essentially over night, trapping the Jews.   In The Origins of the Final Solution , Browning describes the two applications of the ghetto policy as the work of   attritionists and of productionists.   The attritionists saw the ghettos as a way to kill off the Jewish population.   "For them the ghettos were vast concentration camps facilitating the total extraction of Jewish wealth through the leverage of deliberate starvation" (Browning 113).   Evidence of this is displayed in the film as people who died of starvation lay   on the streets.   Likewise, the raids by German soldiers on Jewish dwellings and the murders of the Jews in the streets display the concentration camp-like setting of the Jewish ghettos. The productionists' view was to use ghettos as a temporary holding place for the Jews until they could be exported elsewhere.   The productionsits also believed that the Jews could be used as units of labor to help the German economy during the war.   The Pianist illustrates this view by not only the systematic accumulation and eradication of Jews as they are forced onto trains intended for mass execution but also by the labor camp in Warsaw where Szpilman and several other Jews were forced to work constructing a building for the Germans.   Before his death in 2000, Szpilman occasionally gave piano recitals in the building in central Warsaw which he and other ghetto Jews built under the direction of the Germans.

     In the ghettos of Warsaw, there were still different classes of Jews, surprisingly because the Germans hated the Jews and treated them all with the same callous behavior.   The ghettos of Warsaw consisted of mostly poor, starving Jews who were struggling to survive under the malicious treatment of the German soldiers.   Many children, and even adults, resorted to stealing and pick-pocketing others as a means of survival.   In The Pianist, there is a scene where a woman is leaving the marketplace with a pot of porridge, obviously her dinner, only to have it spilled on the ground by an emaciated man, who immediately eats the meal off the concrete.   In addition to stealing, many young children would sneak out of the ghettos, usually through a small crack in the walls or protection, and bring food back to their families.   Szpilman witnessed the struggle of children to escape the German soldiers when they are returning to the ghettos with food.   At the beginning of the ghettoization, the Germans were not especially concerned with the children smuggling food into the ghettos, but, as news of this spread to the higher ranking Nazis, the soldiers guarding the ghettos became more aware of the situation and were ordered to stop the children from going into or leaving the ghettos.   On the other hand, Szpilman found a job as a pianist at a restaurant which catered to the wealthier Jews who bribed soldiers into allowing them to smuggle food and luxuries into the ghettos. Some Jews used the situation of the ghetto for profit and personal standing.   The Pianist represents Szpilman's story of the ghettoization and treatment of Jews during World War II.

     Sadly, Wladyslaw Szpilman died shortly before Roman Polanski started the production of the pianist's account of the Holocaust, but if Szpilman were alive, he would be proud of what Polanski has done with this story. The Pianist won Oscars at the Academy Awards for Adrien Brody as best leading actor, Roman Polanski as best director, and Ronald Harwood for best adapted screenplay, as well as being nominated for best cinematography, best costume design, best editing, and best pictures.   Mike Clark from USA Today describes Polanski's production of The Pianist as a "best-picture winner, [that] skips the quirky flourishes and simply brings history to life, and Manohla Dargis from the Los Angeles Times refers to it as "a testament to the essential human desire to live."   Like the Chopin "Nocturne" that opens the movie, The Pianist is a sweet, yet sad film that sings to the viewer.