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Roman Polanski Blogathon-The Pianist

August 18, 2013
This  review  was earlier published by me in 2005, when I had wrote it on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of  Auschwitz. This is the starting piece of the Roman Polanski blogathon.  The movie was based on Polanski’s own experiences as a Holocaust survivor, and  it shows.
(Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes in the movie are discussed here).
    First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
    Then they came for the trade unionists,    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade         unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews,    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
    Then they came for the Catholics,    and I didn’t speak out because I was Protestant.
    Then they came for me,  and there was no one left to speak out for me.
One of the memorable poems composed on the  Holocaust by  the German pastor Martin Niemoller, actually it  was more against the way German intellectuals  cowed down before Hitler, during the Holocaust. . I think along with Schindlers List, The Pianist this is one of the best movies related to that topic. But there are differences while Schindlers List dealt with the attempts of one man to save Jews from extermination, The Pianist deals with the struggle for survival of a Jewish man in Warsaw.
The movie is the real life story of celebrated Polish pianist Wladsylaw Spilzman who recorded his experiences of survival during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Spilzman has a happy family comprising his father( Frank Finlay), mother(Maureen Lipman), his sisters and his brother Henryk. The movie begins with the German occupation of Poland in 1939 and slowly unfolds the horrors of the Nazi regime. Spilzman and his family find their lives getting progressively worse.
The Nazis start off with restrictions forbidding Jews from entering restaurants, walking in the parks, as he tells his girl friend Dorota, who is shocked at the absurdity of the rule. And then Jews are not allowed to keep money in their home beyond a certain amount and what they eat is also decided by the Nazis. But all this is just a prelude to Hitler?s Final Solution, the extermination of the Jews to the last man.
The Jews are then herded into the by now infamous Warsaw Ghetto and then the Nazis start to execute their Master’s orders, as Spilzman says “Each is trying to be a better Nazi than Hitler”. Families are executed on the flimsiest of grounds, Jews are deported to hard labor, and comes the hour of reckoning, when all the Jewish families are deported in the cattle cars to the death chambers of Auschwitz.
Its during this time that Spilzman is separated from his family with the help of a Polish Jewish inspector, Stern and he is all alone left to fend for himself. The movie know entirely deals with Spilzman’s efforts at survival in a city which is scarred and destroyed beyond belief. The later half of the movie concentrates mostly on Spilzman and his mute witness to the ravages of the war. He is finally helped out by a kindly German officer with a conscience, with food and shelter.
The Pianist is a movie that hits you straight with the impact of a sledge hammer blow. I was familiar with the Holocaust having read many books on it, and I had also seen Schindlers List, but nothing prepared me for what is show in this movie. Roman Polanski the director, was himself a concentration camp survivor, and it shows in the movie. What he shows is pure unadulterated reality of the Nazi horrors and there is no attempt to gloss over it.
The Nazis march into the house of a Jewish family and orders every one to stand up, one old man is invalid and he cannot stand. So they just take him and throw him to his death casually over the balcony. And then they bring the family out onto the streets, and orders every one to run, and start to shoot them.
Spilzmans father is walking along the street when two Nazi officers stop him and bark at him, why he did not bow to them. He apologizes but the Nazis still beat him up, and they order him to walk in the gutter as Jews are not allowed to walk on pavements.
Jewish men are ordered to stand in a line. The Nazi commandant randomly picks up men from the group and shoots them without any reason or remorse, as if they were just shooting targets. When he comes to the last man in the line, his bullets are over. He coolly picks up another pistol and shoots the man dead.
But for me the most shocking scene in the movie is when an old Jewish lady is carrying her meager ration of food, and is knocked over by another man. Her food falls on to the ground, and a Jewish man so hungry starts to lap up the food, while the lady tearfully fights to get him off. This one scene is enough to highlight the horrors of the Nazi rule. It was not just the concentration camps, the gas chambers, the tortures, it was the fact that they stripped an entire community of their dignity and made them turn into animals.
Also the scene where Spilzman is forcibly separated from his family at the railway station, Jewish prisoners shot in the head by the Nazis, and Spilzmann’s  running through the streets of Warsaw, distraught and weeping.
Even in an otherwise bleak story, there are some scenes that are truly heartwarming, such as Spilzman playing an impromptu piano tune for  a Nazi officer who helps him out. The irony  though hits in the climax, when Spilzman walking through a liberated Warsaw, now  sees the Nazi officer, a prisoner of the Russians. They sure were some good men among the Nazis,  but either there were a minority or  just were helpless in the face of  tyranny.
As you watch this movie only one question crosses your mind, why didn’t the world lift a finger to prevent it? 
 The self proclaimed defender of freedom and democracy, US, sat on the sidelines till Pearl Harbour. Another self proclaimed democratic nation Switzerland used its neutrality as an excuse, and sat idly while Hitler’s goons were rampaging through Europe and in fact allowed its banks to store the loot of the Nazis.
As for Russia, it willfully participated in the loot, until Hitler attacked it and then all of a sudden the so called Imperalist War turned into a people’s war. The Allies keep crowing about how they saved freedom and democracy, but did it take the deaths of millions of people for them to do that. Jews were not the only ones who suffered under Hitler, the French, the Poles, gays, gypsies, Dutch every one and any one, who didn’t measure up to Hitler’s standards was exterminated by the Nazis. Warsaw is the appropriate setting considering that Poland was the country which suffered the maximum being looted by both the Russians and the Nazis. Warsaw suffered as a result of Hitler’s scorched earth policy, when it was firebombed, as soon as it was known that the Russians were approaching. The city was totally destroyed and the entire later half is set against the ruins of the city.
The Pianist belongs to Adrian Brody who truly gives a totally award worthy performance. With his lean and sensitive frame, Brody slips into the character of Spilzman wonderfully and his transition from a handsome young pianist to a totally haggard, shattered survivor foraging for food in Warsaw,is brilliantly depicted. Truly did he deserve the Oscar for this.

One a last note, Hitler is dead and Auschwitz is liberated. But his legacy still lives on in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kashmir, Iraq, Sri Lanka. The world looked on when the Jews were massacred by Hitler and nothing seems to have changed since then. It looked on in Bosnia, it looked on in Rwanda, and looked on in Darfur. The great powers intervene only when it suits them. Nothing seems to have changed and our world leaders have not learnt one bit from history. When are we going to liberated the little Aushcwitzes we have built in our heart and mind?

  1. It’s a shame that Brody never really did much with his Oscar win. Not just because he actually won the Oscar against some of the industry’s finest, but because he’s actually a very good actor that can work well with material that suits him the best. He’s perfect here, but it’s just sad. Good review.

    • I agree with you on Brody, one actor who never really did justice to his talent. And trying to do an Arnie in Predators, was total fail, those sort of brawny roles are not suited for him.

  2. It’s my favorite Polanski film. When the light beam shined on the piano and Brody’s hands finally woke up and his playing saved his life–the unlikely friendship between the officer and he–so amazing. Great review. I heard about your blog through Kevin, Jack-Deth.

  3. “What he shows is pure unadulterated reality of the Nazi horrors and there is no attempt to gloss over it.” This, absolutely. We have to see it with Szpilman’s eyes (there’s a typo there, by the way – Szpilman, not Spilzman). That’s why even if we did know something (and as a Russian, coming from a country which lost 30 million people during that war, I am bound to know a lot about this), we see all this anew, and we have to live it with Szpilman and his family. Thank you for this review.

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