Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In the Ghetto

Film: The Pianist
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

(This review is a part of the Blind Spots series. See others in the series for January at The Matinee.)

World War II is a common theme for films, and when it comes to World War II, the most common theme is to investigate aspects of The Holocaust. There are almost certainly more films on The List about this particular terrible part of humanity that any other topic with the possible exception of love and romance, and even then I’m not sure I’d take the bet. Because this is such a common topic for film, it becomes increasingly important for filmmakers to tell different stories rather than the standard tale of survival against crippling odds and horrifying brutality and inhumanity. And yet, in the long run, this is what most of the stories become—triumphs of simple humanity against a truly loathsome evil.

The Pianist is one such story that manages to transcend the idea of a tale about simple survival while essentially being a film about just that. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a classically trained pianist who plays for Polish radio. On September 1, 1939, German troops cross the border into Poland, and both France and England declare war on Poland’s side. The Poles are convinced that the war will be won quickly and decisively, thanks to their allies coming to their aid.

Of course, this is not the case, and soon Poland is in the same grip of fear that plagues the rest of Europe. For Szpilman and his family, there is greater cause for alarm—they are Jewish, and the laws against them soon become restrictive. As Germany takes over, there are fewer and fewer rights available to the Jews and life becomes harder and harder. As the takeover progresses, so do the increasingly harsh laws, and as these go into effect, the behavior of the occupying forces become more and more openly sadistic. Eventually, the Jews are moved into a walled ghetto, a city within the city of Warsaw.

We follow Szpilman as he attempts to survive in the ghetto, tries to maintain a life with his family, and as he learns that there really is very little help from the outside world. A few friends do assist him, managing to get him out of the ghetto shortly before the uprising. He is moved into an allegedly abandoned apartment right across from the ghetto, which gives him a bard’s-eye view of the battles that go on there as well as the complete destruction of everything inside the walls.

Food becomes scarce, forcing him to go “prospecting” in other apartments with the hope of finding anything to eat. He is eventually found in a hiding place by a German officer named Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), who allows him to survive and even brings him food and clothing before the tide of the war turns in favor of the Allied forces.

The story is based on the real-life experience of the real Wladyslaw Szpilman, which makes touches like this one easier to believe. I have no idea how much, if any, of the film was based on the real story and how much was tweaked to better fit a particular narrative. But knowing that there is some basis in fact on the events depicted does lend a certain air of authenticity to the story.

Adrien Brody is perhaps the perfect person to play this role. He has an unusually expressive face, and his natural gauntness makes him ideal as Szpilman begins to starve. He looks like a man who is starving already. Put him in clothing a few sizes too big, and it looks as if he hasn’t eaten in a week. Toward the end of the film, with a full beard grown in, he looks positively decrepit. The beard doesn’t fill out is face but instead enhances the appearance of emaciation.

What’s interesting here is the starkness of the environment. Forced to move from location to location, Szpilman regularly encounters areas of Warsaw that have become blasted landscapes on which he appears to be the only living thing. We witness depraved acts of inhumanity that are shocking at the start of the film and become simply a part of the environment by the end. It is this that makes Hosenfeld’s behavior so noteworthy and, in its own way, beautiful. He asks Szpilman to play, and sits enraptured by the man’s talent, and then acts to save him. It is as if saving this one thing of beauty—a man’s talent—is a way to repay for the complete destruction of a people, a culture, a society, and a country.

I have a tendency to like or love Polanski’s films. I like this one. Perhaps on a second, future viewing I will love it.

Why to watch The Pianist: It’s a World War II story that is very different from the standard.
Why not to watch: How much time do you want to spend in the Warsaw Ghetto?


  1. Great write up. I've always wanted to see the Pianist, partly because I play a little, though I know of course that it isn't about the piano per se.

  2. Last summer when Simon and I were recording The Film Locker podcast, I rewatched this one for the Roman Polanski episode. Despite owning a copy of the dvd, it had been eight years since I last gave it a look.

    I was taken aback by the serious amount of craft going on in this film - how well shot so much of it is and well-constructed damned near every scene is. It felt so original despite the fact that it was one of the last dogs to the bowl where holocaust films are concerned.

    Glad you enjoyed this character piece, sort of easy to see hoe Brody won his Oscar now ain't it?

  3. It is. Brody acts with his face a lot, and that's more what I noticed about him in this film.

    I'd like to watch this again in a year or so. Polanski is always worth a second look in my opinion, but there are still miles to go before I sleep.

  4. Good review. I had literally never heard of, or seen, Adrien Brody before this film came out. It was truly an "out of nowhere" performance to me. The scene where he quietly hugs the tomato can just said it all at that point in the film.

  5. I agree with Ryan from the comments that a lot of holocaust films came before, so maybe if The Pianist had been made before Schindler's List it would have impacted me more. Adrien Brody was fantastic, and Polanski's film did stay with me.

  6. The film would be a lot less without Brody's performance.

    While it's impossible to avoid touching on The Holocaust completely when making a film about a Jew in Poland during World War II, the film is much more about the man's survival and the survival of art and beauty amid terror, horror, and human depravity. Certainly there are aspects of The Holocaust in the film, though. But we never see a concentration camp. We see the treatment of the Jews but not the regular attempted extermination.

    This is a war film, a film about survival. It is informed by The Holocaust, but not specifically shaped by it.

    One of the reasons I liked this film as well as I did is for that reason--it told a new story by changing the setting from what I expected it to be.

  7. @SJHoneywell: Thanks for your thoughts on The Pianist, which I agree with to a certain extent, the stories are not the same, but I do think there are comparisons to Spielberg's film in terms of story structure (I won't spoil the film for other commenters here ( :

    Terry Gilliam makes some interesting points about Holocaust films here, with spoilers:

  8. Certainly there are some similarities. But the one film (Spielberg's) is very much a film about the Holocaust. Polanski's film is in many ways tangential to the Holocaust.

    I think, though, that in the main we agree on this and we're nitpicking.