Vol. 10, Issue No. 29/2003

Polanski's Pianist, a 'must-see' for every Polish American
by Robert Strybel

If you rarely darken the door of a cinema, you're not alone. Many people feel that watching much of the garbage churned out by Hollywood these days is a waste of time and money. That's why Roman Polanski's The Pianist is such a refreshing change of pace. It is a great movie, a powerful movie, an eye-opening, heart-rending and thought-provoking movie that every Polish American should see. Maybe that is because it was produced outside Hollywood's sensation-seeking, blockbuster system and bears the hallmarks of the 'Polish school of cinematography,' in which Polanski got his start.

The film tells the story of how a well-known pre-war Polish Radio pianist, Polish Jew Wladyslaw Szpilman, survived the Nazi occupation period on both sides of the Warsaw Ghetto wall. He did so mainly through sheer luck--a series of lucky breaks and ironic twists that placed just the right people in his path--helpful Jews and Poles and even one 'good' German. But the picture also showed less desirable individuals of all three nationalities.

A Jewish ghetto policeman tries to talk Szpilman into collaborating with the Nazis. In exchange for keeping order in the ghetto and roughing up fellow-Jews he could count on better food and living conditions and a temporary reprieve from the Holocuast. Szpilman turns down the offer. The same ghetto policeman later helps Szpilman avoid being shipped to the gas chambers of Treblinka where his whole family was to perish.

The extreme misery of Jews dying of starvation and disease in the ghetto is shown in all its naturalistic agony and horror. At the same time we see wealthy Jews, who were able to temporarily buy their way out of the death trains swilling cognac and devouring pastries in a thriving ghetto café, oblivious to the death and suffering all around them. Although Szpilman considered it immoral to become a ghetto policeman, he did not find it reprehensible to play the piano (a recurring theme was the 1930s hit "Umówilem sie z nia na 9-ta") for those self-indulging Jews. Incidentally, the movie also points an accusing finger at rich American Jewry, who did not lift a finger to help their brethren in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Szpilman was aided by several Poles who enabled him to hide on the Aryan side of the ghetto wall. They included a former female companion and her husband as well as members of the Polish underground. But another Pole they introduced him to turned out to be an unscrupulous con-artist who took up a collection among Warsovians to aid Szpilman and then pocketed the money. He even took Szpilman's watch for food money and then vanished into thin air.

The Germans are portrayed in The Pianist as brutal, heartless butchers, shooting and beating Jews at a whim. Szpilman was nearly caught when a fat German, middle-aged blonde started shouting: 'Jude, Jude' (A Jew, a Jew) in the building in which he had been hiding. But there was one exception: a Wehrmacht officer named Wilem Hosenfeld, who was so enthralled by the half-starved Szpilamn's interpretation of Chopin that he not only brought him food. As the Russians were approaching the gates of Warsaw, he even gave him his warm army greatcoat The irony was that this one good German that crossed Szpilman's path got captured by the Russians and died in 1952 in a Soviet POW camp without ever returning to his wife and three kids in Germany.

Szpilman died in Warsaw in 2000 at the age of 88, but he was nearly killed in the final scenes of the picture by Polish soldiers who opened fire on him shouting 'A German, get him,'  when he emerged from a building in his Wehrmacht greatcoat. "Don't shoot, I'm a Pole," Szpilamn replied and walked out with his hands up as the soldiers looked on in amazement.

It was obviously not Polanski's ambition to make some general, summarizing statement about the Holocaust. Instead, he chose to present the ordeal experienced by one would-be victim. Like Szpilman, on whose wartime memoir The Pianist was based, Polanski also survived the Holocaust in Poland thanks to the assistance of Poles.

Ever since it went on limited release in the US at the start of January, The Pianist has received mainly good reviews. Anne Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent who once interviewed Szpilman, wrote the following in the Washington Post:

Szpilman, like Polanski himself, did not mythologize his experiences. There are no hero or enemy nations in his memoir or in Polanski's film. Szpilman encountered brave Jewish resistance fighters and corrupt Jewish ghetto policemen, courageous Poles who risked their lives to hide him and thieving Poles who cheated him out of his meager rations. In the final days of the war, Szpilman also received help from a German officer.
How different, by contrast, are modern American perceptions of a war that few of us remember. On the whole, we prefer our victims to be heroes and we like to make easy, sweeping generalizations about our historical enemies, in a way that makes us feel morally superior. Yet Szpilman's life tells the opposite story: that the potential for tremendous evil, and tremendous good, lurks within every nation. ... He never simplified his memories, never made his experience of war into an argument for nationalism or communism or any other ideology, and never used his victimhood as an argument for his own moral superiority.

An exception to'The Pianist's generally good reception was an article on Holocaust-related movies in the'Wall Street Journal. It was written by one Thane Rosenblum who felt Polanski's film wasn't sufficiently anti-Polish. 'Perhaps because the film is a valentine to Polanski's Poland, non-Jewish Poles are depicted only as freedom-fighters and rescuers,' Rosenblum complained. The Germans are shown as barbarians, but the attitudes of Polish citizens, most of whom were either complicit or indifferent to the fate of their Jewish neighbors, aren't represented in this movie at all. This skewed vision of Polish history is perhaps related to the fact that both Mr Szpilman and Mr Polanski himself--in their special, rarefied cases--would not have survived without the assistance of Polish Catholics. But in their gratitude lies a distortion that favorably colors the anti-Semitic attitudes that the vast majority of Poles had toward Jews.

The article has caused an understandable stir within the Polish-American community, triggering a wave of protest letters to the Wall Street Journal. It has also shown that Rosenblum apparently allowed his own biases to cloud his assessment. But Polanski's film was not to be the definitive statement about the Holocaust. It was meant to reflect the one, six-year slice of life that Szpilman personally experienced between September 1939 and January 1945. No more and no less.

Vol. 10, Issue No. 29/2003

The Summit Times

© Copyright 2003 by Andrzej M. Salski