The Pianist – 2002
This was a very intense movie. How can it not be? Anything having to do with the Holocaust in a realistic way is generally going to be difficult to watch. This one is based on the true memoirs of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. It recounts his incredible story of survival during the horrific events that took place in Poland between late 1939 and early 1945. This Holocaust film is a little different, at least from the few films that I have seen, because it is told from the perspective of a family of Polish Jews.
Adrien Brody played the famous pianist, Szpilman. He lived in Warsaw with his parents, Samuel and Edwarda, played by Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman, his two sisters, Regina and Halina, played by Julia Rayner and Jessica Kate Meyer, and his brother, Henryk, played by Ed Stoppard. At first, nobody seemed to be aware of the seriousness of the situation. The atrocities seemed to start small and got worse and worse. During the German occupation, the treatment of the Jews quickly escalated from bad to horrifying.
Wladyslaw did his best to keep his family together. He earned a living playing piano for Polish radio until the Germans bombed the power station that kept the radio station running. After that, Jews were not allowed to own their own businesses or have too much money. Eventually, they were forced to wear the Star of David as a brand on their arms. Not long after that, they were forced from their homes and into the ghetto. There, they were walled in. The conditions were so terrible that people without money were starving and dying in the streets.
Through all of it, Wladyslaw did what he could to help his family. He even considered joining a resistance movement. But when the overcrowded ghetto was cleared, and he and his family were being herded onto trains to be taken to an extermination camp, he alone was saved. Before Wladylsaw boarded the train, he was grabbed by the collar and pulled out of the line by a friend, but he never saw his family again.
To make a long story short, he spent the remaining years of the war hiding in one place or another. Sometimes he had help from the Polish Resistance. Sometimes he was completely on his own. At one point, he escapes the ghetto to hide in abandoned buildings. But when the German soldiers began torching the buildings, he fled back into the destroyed and empty ghetto. While there, he is discovered by a German Captain named Wilm Hosenfeld, played by Thomas Kretschmann. For me, he was one of the noblest characters in the movie. The scene where he finds Wladyslaw was really the climax of the movie. Wladyslaw is living like a decrepit animal. He is desperately trying to open a can of pickles, a rare treasure in the ruins of his once beautiful city. If he cannot eat, he will die. Captain Hosenfeld sees him, and my heart stopped. He asks Wladyslaw what he did before the war. When he answers, Hoesnfeld takes him to a piano and tells him to play. Wladyslaw plays Chopin’s Ballad in G so beautifully that Hosenfled not only allows him to continue hiding, he supplies him with food until the Germans pulled out of Warsaw at the end of the war.
In doing my research about the true facts surrounding Szpilman’s amazing story, I became increasingly interested in Hosenfeld. What I learned was both fascinating and tragic. The movie never really explained why he helped Szpilman. It implied that he was so moved by his beautiful music that he couldn’t bear to allow him to be destroyed. But in reality, he was a Nazi who was against the inhumane treatment of Jews during the war. He had helped to hide or rescue several Polish people during the war, not just Wladyslaw Szpilman. The tragedy was that he was taken as a prisoner of war to Russia. He was accused of war crimes because of his Nazi affiliation and was tortured by the Soviet secret services. After seven years of torture, he died. But eventually, in 2009, he was recognized in Israel’s Memorial to the victims of the Holocaust as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
The movie was powerful. It is not as depressing as Schindler’s List, but that made it no less impactful. Brody turned in an amazing performance. Another stand-out in the cast was Emilia Fox, playing the part of Darota, a beautiful Polish woman who was not a Jew. Had it not been for the war, the two might have fallen in love with each other. As it was, she helped to hide him after he had escaped the ghetto. I was also impressed with Stoppard and Lipman, Wladyslaw’s brother and mother.
The frightening realism that was portrayed in the movie was difficult to watch. But it was a great movie about the triumph of the human spirit. In it were shown acts of utter cruelty, supreme sacrifice, and great kindness. The movie was incredibly well-made, and really deserved the Best Picture nomination it was given. In fact, it was nominated for a total of seven Academy Awards, and took home three. Brody won for Best Actor, Roman Polanski won for Best Director, and Ronald Harwood took home an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It was a wonderfully inspirational film. Well done, everybody.