Richard A. Blake
The Pianist

Imagine one of those unspeakably beautiful September mornings in New York, with sunlight shouldering its way across the East River, nudging the bridges and skyscrapers and striding into the concrete canyons of Lower Manhattan. The air itself energizes office workers pouring into Manhattan from Queens and Brooklyn, from Westchester and Hackensack. This bright new day exhilarates with eager anticipation: Get to the office early and check e-mails before the routine of business settles in. Or perhaps the loveliness of the final whispers of summer makes the thought of a leisurely breakfast on a bench in Battery Park irresistible. Starbucks and a bagel, of course. Morning sunlight on the Statue of Liberty. A few minutes will make no difference.

 

On this morning, when hell touched earth, it made a great difference. Some were incinerated at their work stations. Others looked on in disbelief. Perhaps they finished their bagel and coffee scarcely aware of the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding before their eyes. Those who perished at their desks were not heroes; they were merely passive victims of ideology gone mad. Those who survived in the park were not cowards; through no design of their own they were simply sitting by the river when flaming jet fuel engulfed their offices and their friends. Why do such things happen? How do survivors cope with their random good fortune as they recollect the dead?

The Pianist sets these questions in the context of the Holocaust. As director, Roman Polanski brings a fearful authenticity to the film. A Jewish child in Crakow, he could observe the frantic efforts to preserve humanity under the Nazis. In the best of his earlier work, such as “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “Chinatown” (1974), he probed the effects of evil on those powerless to resist. Now at age 70, he has dared to lift the scab and drain the source of the infection.

Ronald Harwood’s screenplay grew from the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a well-known musician in the concert and radio world of pre-war Warsaw. His family, dignified, prosperous, refined and resolutely middle class, faces the arrival of the invading army with a mixture of disbelief and denial. When the radio tells them that Britain has entered the war, they drink a toast to the end of their uncertainties. Soon the danger will pass, and in the meantime they worry about details, like hiding money if the Germans come.

While rumors of war swirl about them, as much as possible the Szpilmans try to maintain their normal lives. Wladyslaw Szpilman himself (Adrien Brody) continues his regular radio concert as the bombs demolish the studio. He brushes the plaster from his stylish double-breasted suit, and when Dorota (Emilia Fox) notices the blood on his forehead, he dismisses the wound as “nothing.” Of course, the war will mean much more than the inconvenience of a dusty suit, a scratched forehead and an interrupted broadcast.

Even during the early days of the occupation, Szpilman does relatively well by playing in a restaurant patronized by wealthy Jews. This forced segregation seems absurd to a genteel family like the Szpilmans, and the compulsory armbands degrading, but still they are only a stupid, silly annoyance. They hurt no one. The world becomes more ominous when two Nazis punch the elderly Szpilman patriarch (Frank Finlay) for failing to bow to them and walk in the gutter, where Jews belong. The soldiers’ behavior can no longer be dismissed as an unfortunate aberration when the family receives orders to relocate to the ghetto. Once the American Jews get to Roosevelt, the Szpilmans believe, their lives will be restored. Fatalism and truth seep into their consciousness only when they are ordered to the railroad yards for a second relocation in Treblinka. A boy passes through the waiting crowd selling candy at an exorbitant price. The Szpilmans buy a caramel with their last zlotys. Why not? What good is money? The boy is a fool.

Through a stroke of luck, Wladyslaw never gets on the train with his family. He returns to the ghetto as a laborer and plays a modest role in planning for the uprising. He is not there when the Nazis retaliate and transform the buildings to ashes. Near the end of the war, as the Russians draw closer and the city rises up against the defeated conquers, he scurries through the rubble clutching a can of pickles that may delay starvation, if only he can find the means to open it. Discovered by a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann), he is forced to play an impromptu concert on a piano that has miraculously survived the destruction. Touched by the music and knowing the end is near, the officer allows Szpilman to live.

What is most chilling about this story is the ordinariness of survival. Szpilman is no hero; he leads no resistance fighters, suffers none of the brutal tortures of the occupation and experiences none of the harrowing escapes so common to films of this kind. He happens into life, while his family happens into death. For him personally, the occupation is little more than a series of inconveniences, of interruptions. While the city becomes a furnace of death, he works and eats and stumbles upon friends who provide the warnings and shelter that allow him to live another day. His hiding is not so much dangerous as tedious.

The concept is daring and original to the genre of Holocaust films, but it leaves a hollow place at the core of the story. Adrien Brody plays the main character with a cool detachment, a form of passivity that reduces Szpilman to an anesthetized patient observing surgery on his own body. Did he mourn the loss of his family? Did he rage at the systematic brutalization of his people? Or at their extermination? Did he truly love Dorota, and was he disappointed to find her married to another gentile while he was in the ghetto? For that matter, as he did his workaday job in cafes and radio stations, did he ever love the music? Did he weep when it was taken from him? His spiritual death comes from anemia of the soul rather than trauma. Through Szpilman’s passivity, Roman Polanski and his scriptwriter Robert Harwood provide a unique and terrifying view of dehumanization, but they have at the same time created a character whose very iciness distances him from the audience. As a result, the man and his story become less gripping than they should be.

If survival is a capricious god, so is murder. The Nazis kill, beat and humiliate Jews at gruesome whim. Death comes without motivation, as undoubtedly it did during the occupation. Yet this particular form of violence has become a cliché in movies. Polanski gives us the jackboots and Lugers, the riding crops, the obese sadistic guards and immaculately groomed, unfeeling officers. We’ve seen them all before, many times, and sadly as a result the images have lost their power to enrage or nauseate. Perhaps through constant repetition, the images have grown dull; or perhaps like additional casualties of war, we’ve become less sensitive to them.

Polanski’s distancing us from the material makes sense in the overall scheme of the film. This is ultimately not a story about the Holocaust or even of one man’s survival. “The Pianist” is in fact a moral parable. Polanski wants to tell us that somehow, despite its seemingly endless descent into its darker self, the human race stumbles into the future with the rags and tatters of its better aspirations able to reassert themselves. Music survives, even triumphs, after humankind has done its inconceivable worst to itself. An artist and survivor like Polanski has earned the right to think and say that.

Most of us are neither artists nor survivors, but we have the right and, more, the duty to question his conclusions. No, I am not pessimistic, exactly. But the world now faces another generation of mindless violence in the name of one more diseased ideology. Muddling through will not be enough. Even if, 58 years from now, the concert halls still echo with Chopin, can we continue to accept this endless cycle of self-inflicted annihilation as the normal state of human affairs before we get there? And once seated in plush seats amid velvet draperies, can we delight in the music and block our ears to the new wave of havoc loosed on the streets outside the hall? Polanski’s Szpilman seems too accepting of the world as it is, or more accurately, as it once was and he believes is no longer.Perhaps in the end I am even more optimistic than Polanski. If we can create music, we can create a world without Holocausts, but it will take more than muddling through and waiting for better times to return.

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College.

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