February 04, 2005

The Pianist

Some time ago my wife bought the video of The Pianist. It's been sitting on the shelf since then, and somehow we were never able to make time to see it. We just saw it tonight.

I don't see many movies these days, and when I do I'm not in the mood for a Holocaust movie - I've never seen Schindler's List, for example. But I'm glad I saw this one. I'm not sure how I feel about it, though. It's definitely a good movie on its own terms, but a Holocaust movie is never judged simply on its own terms, but on how well it illuminates its subject matter.

The Pianist is the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist. He survives the war by avoiding the death camps - the story of many survivors. Unfortunately, if you come expecting a broader point of view, you won't get it in this movie unless you are already very familiar with the subject matter, and can see it operating in the background. On top of this, Szpilman is a very passive character throughout most of the movie. He spends a lot of time hiding, which is not unrealistic for those who managed to survive. (At one point he is hiding in a small apartment with a piano, which he cannot play for fear of being found. There's a very beautiful scene based on his predicament.)

Roman Polansky describes why he made the film:

This book describes the events I remember from my childhood. For many years I've been planning to make a film about this period, but I couldn't find the right material. Szpilman's book isn't just another chapter in the book of martyrdom we all know. In his memoirs, he describes these events from the point of view of a man who experienced them. The book was written shortly after the war and maybe this is why it is so fresh, unlike the accounts written later, 20-30 years after the war. Reading the first few chapters, I knew it was going to be my next film.

You know, many times I read things that I could more or less make a movie on that subject, but they were usually too close to my own personal experiences of the war. I didn't want that. Here, however, we are dealing with the Warsaw Ghetto - I was in the Krakow Ghetto. I could use my own experiences in the script without making it an autobiography. It was easy for me to work on this script because I remember that period all too well.

Adrien Brody describes playing Szpilman:

When I found I had gotten the role I had already discussed with Roman that I would need to lose a lot of weight...

When I arrived in Europe, I went on a diet where I lost 30 pounds in six weeks. I'm 6 foot 1 and I was 130 pounds. That was very difficult, but what it did was that it provided me into an insight of deprivation I had never experienced. The cravings end up going beyond hunger and open your thought processes into being more receptive to loss and emptiness. One thing we take for granted is sugar, caffeine and carbohydrates. All these things give us something to get through our boredom, our tiredness. When you omit them for a long period of time, there is a metamorphosis that takes place and you feel very different.

It forced me to conserve all energy unless I was doing something productive. It kills your motivation for other things. You have to be strong enough to make it through a long workday. Since we shot the film in reverse order, the first day I showed up on set I had to be the most destroyed. When I am climbing over the wall and seeing Warsaw's devastation, which they recreated, my reaction is real. I told Roman that I don't have any energy. He said "What do you need energy for? Just do it." I had to just climb over the wall and I could hardly do it. Essentially, I'm not acting and perhaps that's what Roman wanted.

The one thing the film is missing is a depiction of the destruction Szpilman returned to after the war. There are plenty of destroyed buildings in the movie, but no depiction of the human destruction, and specifically the destruction of the Jews. Warsaw was one third Jewish at the start of the war. At the end of the war there were twenty Jews left in the city - one of them was Szpilman. There were three million Jews in Poland before the war, after the war only about 100,000 remained. Szpilman lost his entire family in the war. Yet, the movie depicts him returning victorious to his musical career. Yes, we see his sadness, but not a sense of emptiness at what remained.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at February 4, 2005 12:49 AM
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I also wrote about watching this films a few months back. Like you I hardly ever watch a film. This one if exceptionally good.

Posted by: Hatshepsut at February 4, 2005 01:03 AM Permalink

I don't understand how he could just keep living in Poland though. I just can't..

Posted by: Hatshepsut at February 4, 2005 01:06 AM Permalink

David, you make a really interesting point about the film missing the depiction of what was left, or rather not left, after the war. I saw the film and this never occurred to me.

For the record, my mother is a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. She survived in hiding and was not in the camps.

My father also survived in hiding under different circumstances. He once said the hardest thing about the war was not surviving it (hard as that was), but once it was over, to find out the extent of the destruction and that the hope that he had during the war of being reunited with his family could not be fulfilled, because they were all dead. That is when depression *really* set in for a lot of survivors.

60 years later the war is not over for *me*. Because of that devastation.

I'm with Hatshepsut. I just don't understand how he could continue to live in Poland, or why he would have wanted to.

Posted by: miki at February 4, 2005 03:43 AM Permalink

It was quite an accomoplishment for Roman Polansky, considering all he has been through.

Posted by: muse at February 5, 2005 06:17 PM Permalink

As I recall, the film was appropriately and effectively claustrophobic and catastrophic - with the feeling of impending doom and horror closing in. I think it was very well done in that respect. Compare and contrast to Life is Beautiful, which the more I think about, the less I like, especially the more I encounter the phenomenon of Holocaust-Denial Lite - Holocaust Minimization - which that latter film feeds.

Posted by: Solomon at February 5, 2005 06:31 PM Permalink

I saw this movie a while back. At the time, an old friend from high school asked me how I felt about it. I told her I thought the movie was pretty good, but the ending offended me. Why, she asked, somewhat surprised. The fact that the protagonist remained in Poland bothered me greatly. Fine, he avoided the death camps, and yes, he had help from sympathetic Poles. But there were pogroms in Poland AFTER the Holocaust was over! The fact that he remained, despite the pogroms, well, I found it incredibly offensive and disgusting. I thought that, of all the possible material available, Polanski had to pick this questionable character?! Her reaction? She had never heard of the post-Holocaust pogroms, which I wasn't surprised about, since I too had never heard of them growing up. After getting over her initial shock of this bit of under-publicized history, she did her own research and understood why I didn't like the movie.

Posted by: Scott Weisman at February 8, 2005 01:11 AM Permalink

I, too, don't understand how Szpilman could stay in Poland after the war, but I don't think that it diminishes the power of the story.

For any movie (or any story, for that matter) to work, its events have to validate its conclusion. In this case, the events which were so well depicted would validate the conclusion: "I am victorious, but what is the meaning of my victory when my world is destroyed?" This is an important conclusion, for it is one that every Holocaust survivor must feel. The only way that I can see to work in the post-Holocaust pogrom is to end in its midst, the conclusion would then be: "it could happen again." Personally, I prefer the first conclusion. Trying to get both together wouldn't work story-wise, in my opinion it would then be a weak movie, which would defeat the purpose of making a good movie about the Holocaust that people would want to see.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at February 8, 2005 10:17 AM Permalink

The comment above referred to the ending that I would have liked to see. As it is, the movie has what I think is a very weak conclusion: "I am victorious, but I'm sad."

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at February 8, 2005 10:21 AM Permalink

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