The Pianist
(2002, 148 min, UK/FR/DE/NL/PL)
Director: Roman Polanski

 

WARNING!

Reading the below before seeing the flick will RUIN this movie for you!!!

 

Spoiler/Summary:

This is a blow-by-blow account of the movie with some (okay, many) initial reflections thrown in.

The film starts off with -- you guessed it -- the siege of Warsaw. The movie opens with black and white blooming to color. The Pianist, our Hero Wladyslaw Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody), plays and is interrupted by the initial rounds of the bombardment blowing a hole through the building. The war has reached his city, but he's not as concerned for himself as modern viewers know he should be. When he returns to his family (uninjured) the film does not comment on their foolishness for staying, nor mention how typical or doomed this thought patter would become.

At this point, the film is mostly bright, and the city is solid and lively (despite the war). As the troops come in, the buildings seem to change in character. They are lit more coldly, and shown from sharper angles. Things get dirtier, and grey. Despite subtle changes in the camera's view, the film continues to 'document' events without much in the way of comment (though this is, of course, a fictionalization of a real person's story).

We see the family express some concerns about German occupation, but they expect that war will end soon. Events unfold. Restrictions are set. Jews are particularly restricted. The family complies to one set of demeaning requirements after another. They witness how anything short of immediate obedience to Germans results in swift and brutal punishment -- and while they experience it first hand, it is only in blessedly minor ways compared to how they see others treated (which is to say, none of the family are killed in Warsaw). As things go from worse, to worse, to even worse than that, Szpilman gets increasing cut off from his past prestige. By October 31st, 1940, all Jews must abandon their homes and move to a ghetto designated by the Germans. The piano is sold for next to nothing, and the family moves with cattle-like throngs of other Jewish families to a tiny apartment where they will spend the next couple years.

We watch the events that Szpilman carried with him. The film shows German troops ridiculing Jews, and grabbing old folks, those of odd carriages and with injuries and forcing them to dance for the entertainment of the Germans. We see a body on the street that no one moves. We see a home invaded, and an infirm elder thrown off a balcony to his death when he fails to rise from his wheelchair when so commanded.

More importantly, we see the shrinking world from the POV of a secrecy behind a window pane. This theme gets repeated more and more as freedoms diminish. The ghetto is cramped and poverty stricken. The larger Warsaw is inaccessible. Then, the horror all viewers knew was coming arrives. In August of 1942, the Szpilman clan -- like so many other families between that July and September -- are rounded up and shipped to the Treblinka death camp. While being held for processing, folks wonder what their fate will be. They can't imagine Germany would slaughter such a massive potential labor. It'd be a waste. The senior Szpilman points out that too many are old men, young children, and women -- not ideal labor. There is a question as to what will happen, but the family doesn't have know what history has already told the viewer. We know what will happen, and we fear.

As the trains are bordered, Wladyslaw Szpilman is yanked out of line by an acquaintance in the Jewish Police (a group widely regarded by Szpilman and others as stooges for the Germans). Szpilman protests being separated from his kin, but the cop shuts him up, and in just a few words convinces Szpilman to seek hiding. He does. The doors to the train cars are slammed on the distraught passengers. We see a littler of belongings left behind surrounding the bodies of a few who hadn't obeyed German orders fast enough.

With nothing left but outrage, fear, grief and disbelief, Szpilman seeks refuge. He has lost his family, his community, and is on the run. Everywhere he turns, there is ruin and death. He sees a family who'd printed resistance pamphlets outside their home -- all shot dead. On one street after another, he sees the chaos of possessions left scattered in the forced rush to either comply with German law or escape from it. The ghetto is deserted. He is alone. He seeks refuge in familiar places, and eventually returns to the cafe where he's played piano. A friend is hiding there, and offers him temporary shelter, but it won't last. [Historical note: of the almost 400 thousand Jews originally in Warsaw, almost 380,000 were sent to the Ghetto, and 265,000 of those were sent to Treblinka. Others escaped either before the Germans entered the city, or before the Germans established the ghetto. Still others were killed before and during the enforcement of the Ghetto's boundary. By January of 1943 it is estimated that only 40,000 Jews -- one tenth their original population -- were left in Warsaw.]

He ends up working as labor for the Germans. He hears that the trains take people in to Treblinka, but only empty cars return, and food is never seen on the lines. He must realize his family is doomed. Conditions are brutal, and he does not do well. Other laborers kindly get him a less manually intensive position. The movie does not show anyone saying this, but there seems to be a cost to the lighter work duty -- he has to help smuggle guns into the almost-empty ghetto for the few who remain.

The movie takes a turn here. Throughout, the film is less compassionate towards Szpilman's character than it might be. Though he acts charitably when convenient, we increasingly see him putting his needs before the needs of others. Examples: when the movie begins, he is more interested in continuing to play than in the war. When he returns home, the brother is the most radical of the family, and his actions reveal -- though not detailed -- counter the more tempered response of our Hero. Szpilman does act to get his brother out of jail, but the action is followed by the brother's rebuke that Szpilman was not thinking of the brother when he did it, so it seems more about wanting the family together than for reasons of compassion. Szpilman does take great risk in smuggling weapons into the ghetto, but did he have a choice? More importantly, shortly after taking this job (in film time) Szpilman is nearly discovered in smuggling, and asks for help getting out of the ghetto. He abandons his fellow Jewish laborers. From there on out, he MUST give his own needs priority. This is the only survival strategy available.

He is helped out, and reaches a female peer who admired him, it has been days since he's had anything but grief and depravation. Yet in this time of trial, his first words to her are, "I'm sorry. I'm dirty. I'm so filthy". He weeps and she accepts him in all his disheveled misery. Note that his words are ones of personal disgust at his condition, yet the movie is reflecting larger horrors. As such, the words don't sound as selfish as they might. His friend can't risk keeping him. She gets him fresh clothes, and burn his old German issued work uniform in the kitchen stove. He must move again. He is told to stay in an abandoned apartment where he is locked inside. He can hear every sound through the walls, and must keep as quiet as possible. His isolation begins.

April 19, 1943: the Ghetto Uprising begins. Szpilman silently views what he can from the window. After almost a month (May 16th), the dust settles, the buildings used by the resistance are destroyed, and the 'rebels' are dead. When his friends return, he (unselfishly) laments, "I should have been there." The tragedies seem endless. A friend tells him that if the Germans come, Szpilman should throw himself out the window. He can't be taken alive (lest the names of conspirators be tortured out of him). In fairly short movie-time, we then see (again, by means of silent glimpse through a closed window) that, yes, the Germans are coming. Alone, and with restrained panic, Szpilman opens the window, puts a chair under it to use as a step, and moves the table out of the way so he has a clear path to his death. The Germans are inside the building. He can hear them on the steps. We looks to the door, he looks to the window, and .... and hears them at a different apartment. Sneaking glances downward from the sill, he sees them taking someone else away.

There is a momentary relief, but the struggle continues. After the uprising, it is difficult for him to get food (mostly, he must rely on others). There is a long series of events where he is ravaged by hunger, and utterly silent. Dialog is sparse. While Szpilman is no longer being used like a beast of burden, he is now akin to a neglected house pet locked in a cage. Increasingly, the only action in his shelter is a battle for hunger. Views from the windows increase as his life is further reduced.

In August of 1944, a rebellion outside his rooms brings a German counter attack on his building. He must flee. The building is being blown apart from all around him. There is an especially nice (though too brief) interpretation of temporary hearing loss after a shell erupts in the rooms adjoining his. As the blast explodes the building, all sounds of the war are muted and a metallic tone fills the sound track. Just as suddenly, the masses of hostile noise resume as he tries to escape -- always trying upward routes first because the Germans are always entering from below. He is uncaged, but lost in a world that means to destroy him.

He can't think past the basic needs of food, water, and survival. Being quiet has become part of conditioning, and speech would be too human for this wreck to attain. He acts only on instinct honed by raw fear. It gets to the point where he's been through so much horror, and is in so much need, that he becomes feral. He looks it, too. He is unwashed, unshaven, and wearing tatters. He drinks fetid water because there is nothing better to be found. He injures himself as he takes flight from Germans razing his temporary hiding place, and his gait becomes a subhuman, shuffling limp. He stumbles through an expansive backdrop of the remnants of Warsaw. Once a proud city, we see it now as piles of rubble fading to a grey dust against the horizon.

It takes an excellent director to maintain tension without dialog (and with so many points where action is absent), yet Polanski achieves it. The absence of dialog parallels the erasure of civilized life. The viewer has seen long stretches of waiting interrupted by harsh moments of brutality. This makes every silent stretch tense because we expect another outburst of violence could come at any time. We've been shown that nothing can be done to prepare, and that every eruption leads to death.

So it is that the animal which was once Szpilman finds a large (probably 5 gallon) tin of pickles. Unfortunately, German soldiers arrive at the building before he can open it. He scurries to hide, and must wait for them before he can attempt to open it. Eventually, he hears the cars pull out, and he looks for something to cut through the lid. Famished and dehydrated, he finds a set of fireplace tools, and gives them a try -- noisily whacking the poker with the shovel.

Once before in the film, he's broken the silence (the shattering of dishes), and on that occasion, he was immediately jeopardized. Once again, the same fate is in store. His weak and fumbling hands let the can slip, and the camera switches to show the precious fluid spill across the floor. No hand moves to save it. The camera pans up, and we see the boots of a German Officer. Szpilman is as good as dead.

A short interrogation leads to Szpilman claiming he is -- was -- a pianist. The Officer motions to a piano in the parlor and tells Szpilman to prove it. This shot gets a little over-the-top as we see the defeated, ever-fearful Szpilman seat himself at a piano, try to relax is frozen and crippled hands, and approach the keys. Would the Officer slam the lid on his fingers? Would proof do any good? In a moment, it does not matter, as Szpilman's fingers find the keys and he becomes lost in the world of his Art. The audience is taken along on this pleading journey of pain filled notes. A distant yet exceedingly bright light shines through the cracked wall to give a halo to our Hero as he performs. The light is a bit too convenient -- especially when showing Szpilman's breath against the cold winter air -- but the music is powerful.

When he finishes, the Officer approves of the performance, and Szpilman cries.

The Germans make the building a temporary Headquarters, and the Officer keeps Szpilman a secret and brings him food. As the Russians pull in, Szpilman is given more food and the Officer's coat.

At this point, it is possible that Polanski threw in a jab at Spielberg's "Schindler's List". In that movie, Spielberg's employs this crude and obvious device: in a black and white film, he gives color to a lone child's red coat. This may be the cheapest ploy of modern cinema in a supposedly 'serious' movie. As if the Holocaust is not tragic enough, Spielberg hammers home the point that "Nazis were not nice people" with the device of the girl's coat -- as it the millions of deaths, the tortures, or cruel medical experimentations were not enough.

Here, in "The Pianist", Polanski uses the German Officer's coat much more effectively. As the Russians pull in, we see him rushing to the liberators with no thought to the fact that he's wearing the Enemy's uniform. The audience was at the edge of their seats as he mindless runs at the Russian troops. He hugs a fellow survivor, and the cry goes out, "German! German!" Szpilman pulls back, confused. The Russians fire on him, and once again, he must flee to refuge. They have him trapped, and grenade the building where he hides. After begging to surrender, they realize he is Polish, and ask, "Why the fucking coat?!?!?" He replies, "Because I was cold."

It is simple. It feels honest. One wonders if Polanski was visually telling Spielberg, "This is how to do it right."

The film has reached its conclusion, and all that is left is the epilogue. We see freed death camp prisoners snub captured Germans. One of the POWs turns out to be the very Officer that helped Szpilman. He asks a freed Jew to tell Szpilman where he is. The film then shows Szpilman go to that location, and find no one is there.

The film closes with Szpilman performing, and overlays of follow-up information printed on the screen. Szpilman never found the Officer to help him, but records indicate he died in a Soviet prison camp. Szpilman continued his career, and was well regarded.

Summary of interesting themes:
- Repetition of spontaneous brutality
- Repetition of silence
- Repetition of windows
- Piano representing civilized life

 

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