The Pianist as a historical document

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In the film The Pianist released on DVD by Focus Films in , Roman Polanski as director does an admirable job of portraying the perspective of one of the very few survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto during The Holocaust. The film is valuable as a historical document, not only because it stays close to the details of the autobiographical book written by that survivor soon after the war, but because Polanski himself is also a survivor (from Krakow) of the horrific events of that time.This gives Polanski an advantage as a director in choosing which details are authentic for the time and place.

The film is strictly chronological, with no flashbacks or switching between scenes, and for the most part shows only what the main character Wladyslaw Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) saw through his own eyes. At a few key points in his story, the dates of the events are shown on the screen before they are depicted. Two examples of this are the beginning () and end () of the Jewish Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, witnessed by Szpilman from the window in the flat where he was hiding at the time just outside the Ghetto wall.

Even when the dates are not displayed on the screen, there are also references to historical events such as the declaration of war by Great Britain on Nazi Germany (September 3, 1939) and the landings by the Allies in Western France on D-Day (). This places those points in the story in the context of what was going on in the larger sweep of history.

Polanski also chronicles the stages of destruction of the city of Warsaw. In the opening sequence we see a statue with its arm pointing to the left, and civilians walking to and fro in the streets in the background. Every so often throughout the movie, we see the same statue, only each time the destruction in the background is more complete. Polanski also uses this same technique of showing the same scene at different times throughout the war with a row of buildings until all that is left is rubble.

What leads a sense of authenticity to the film is not only the attention to detail as far as the props and scenery goes, but its depiction of human character. Not all the Jews are good; not all the Nazis are bad. Even within the same character, such as the Jewish policeman Itzak, there is both good and bad. For example, even while he is beating fellow Jews with his truncheon at the train station, he pulls Szpilman out of the line going to the death camps.

Some Jews such as Itzak work with the Nazis in hopes of bettering their chances of survival. Others engage in black market activities at the expense of their fellow Jews. Early in the film, Wladyslaw's brother Henryk speaks bitterly of those who are making money while people are starving are around them, how they bribed the guards so they could bring in cartloads of food and other supplies.

Later in the film, a member of the Polish underground who is supposed to be supplying Wladyslaw with food collects a “tidy sum” of money by asking people all over Warsaw for donations to help the famous pianist. He stops visiting and does not bring food to Wladyslaw who nearly dies as a result. Only the intervention of a Polish couple who bring in a doctor saves his life. This again shows there are good and bad people in every society.

Thankfully, the film also shows positive human traits such as loyalty, friendship, courage, and compassion. A multitude of people help Wladyslaw throughout the film, and he does what he can to help them in return. Wladyslaw would not have survived to the end if a German officer who heard him play had not supplied him with food and a coat.

There are some literary references I picked up during the film as well. Early in the war, Henryk (Wladyslaw's brother) is selling books in the street. Wladyslaw asks him if he had sold anything. Henryk replies, “Just one. Dostoevsky The Idiot. Three zlotys.” Wladyslaw says, “Better than yesterday.” Henryk bitterly says, “Three lousy zlotys.” Prince Mishkin, the lead character of The Idiot, is known for his generosity and compassion. I wonder if Polanski is trying to say these traits were devalued by the Nazis.

Later in the film, Wladyslaw and his family are sitting in the courtyard with many other Jews who don't know they will soon be loaded onto boxcars to go to the death camps. Henryk reads aloud from Act III, scene 1 of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? If you wrong us, do we not revenge?” The first two parts of this quotation show the common humanity of the Jews with other peoples, but the reference to poison describes what was to happen in the death camps, and the part about revenge may foreshadow the Jewish uprising in the Ghetto the following year.

The film opens with the Polish people, including Jews, freely walking the streets of Warsaw. Over time, more and more restrictions are placed on the Jews: limiting their freedom and movement, branding them with an armband, dehumanizing them. Even some fellow Poles try to be “better Nazis than Hitler,” as Wladyslaw observes when he sees a “No Jews” sign on a coffee shop early in the film.

The casual brutality of the Nazis to the Jews is well documented throughout the film. For example, when a girl asks a Nazi “Where are you taking us?” his reply is a pistol shot to her head. Jews are beaten by a drunken Nazi to celebrate New Year's Eve. Eight Jews are randomly picked out of a line and ordered to lie down on the street. A Nazi shoots seven of them in the head and then runs out of ammunition. The last one, a Socialist friend of Wladyslaw's, must wait for the Nazi to reload his pistol before he too is shot in the head. Such acts of cruelty are seen throughout the film. According to the bonus features of the DVD, many scenes in the film were recreated from actual photographs and archival film footage shot by the Nazis.

Wladyslaw tries to get back with his family after the Jewish policeman Itzak pulls him out of the line to the boxcars. Itzak tells him to go, that “I just saved your life.” Wladyslaw gets away from the trains and walks sobbing through a street empty of people but strewn with their discarded belongings as snowflakes fall about him. The director makes use of falling snow for several magnificent shots in this film.

The death camps themselves are not seen or imagined by Wladyslaw, or at least what the real Wladyslaw may have imagined is not known and not shown in the film itself. The character in the film later hears about Treblinka: how trains full of people go in and come out empty, no food supplies go in, and civilians can not go near it. He is told by the bearer of this news that the Nazis are exterminating the Jews.

The number of people around Wladyslaw and helping him diminishes throughout the film, until at the end he is completely alone. At the beginning of the film, one sees a bustling metropolis with crowds in the streets. At the end, one sees block after block of streets strewn with rubble and desolate of people, with only one man desperately trying to stay alive amidst all the rubble and destruction.

This is a personal narrative of the Holocaust, telling the story of one who did not go to the death camps. The tremendous horror of those terrible places is not shown, but audience members hopefully know something about it. Still, the way this film shows how seemingly ordinary people can be so cruel to other people is valuable for the shocking questions it raises about human behavior and the dangers of this happening again.

As a historical document, this film is valuable in its attention to detail, human character, historical accuracy, and the personal narrative of one man's experiences during this time. The director focuses on what the lead character sees with his own eyes, giving us a glimpse of what those experiences were like. In many cases he survives by pure chance, showing the randomness often associated with human lives.


The Pianist, , director Roman Polanski, , Focus Films, DVD.

A Story of Survival” (from side two of The Pianist DVD), , director Roman Polanski, , Focus Films, DVD.