BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 17, 2003
To describe Roman Polanski's film The Pianist in less than superlatives might get one branded obtuse or hard-hearted. "A powerfully meticulous epic," extolled Richard Corliss in Time. "A remarkable story, handled with an expert lack of sentimentality," the New Statesman's Philip Kerr agreed. "It doesn't hit a false note." Newsweek, weirdly greeting the movie's release "just in time for Christmas," touted its honesty, which is "untainted by executives obsessed with political correctness, test audiences, and Monday-morning box-office reports." The same issue of The Economist that applauded Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can as a "welcome change from Auschwitz" praised The Pianist for establishing Polanski as "one of our greatest living film-makers." And most effusive was Terrence Rafferty in The New York Times, who rhapsodized about "achingly precise images" and "uncanny depth and richness." This, he said, is the film for which Polanski hast been "rehearsing for his whole life." The Pianist won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and prizes from the Academie Francaise and the European Film Awards. It won Cesars (France's Oscar) and BAFTAs (Britain's Oscar) for best film and best director, and it has been nominated for best picture in this year's Academy Awards.
All these accolades are surprising for a film that is marred by two-dimensional performances, dozens of undeveloped characters, a sluggish plot, and a protagonist who learns nothing from his horrific experiences. Perhaps the praise for The Pianist is just the inevitable consequence of its subject matter. A director who escaped the Krakow ghetto as a child and whose mother perished in Auschwitz has made a film about the Holocaust. This confers upon it immediate cultural sanctity. Never mind that the film brings no departure from Polanski's longtime preoccupation with cruelty and isolation. It also adds exactly nothing to the iconography or the understanding of the Holocaust: we have already seen these images of Jews randomly selected and shot, and more graphically, in Schindler's List.
But I have my own suspicion about the reasons for the critical success of The Pianist, especially in Europe. Here is a film that conflates the Jew's identity as victim with the Jew's role as savior; that reduces Europe's guilt to a specific evil and purifies it. Here, at last, is the film that Europe has been waiting for: the one that gets it off the hook. In this sense, this film full of bad news is really full of good news. It holds out the possibility of absolution.
The Pianist is based on book of the same name by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a composer of popular songs and a performer on Poland's state radio. The well-named Szpilman hardly portrays himself as heroic. Twenty-six years old and still living at home, shorn of intimate relations, he reserves his ardor for music--so fervently, so exclusively, that he scarcely notices German bombs crashing near his Warsaw studio as the German invasion begins in September 1939. He is an able-bodied man, but he ignores the government's call for all such men to join in the city's defense. After the Nazi occupation, when Jews are ordered to wear Star of David armbands and to relocate to the ghetto, Szpilman's brother Henryk resists these edicts, but Wlad complies with them impassively.
Feckless, effete, Szpilman clearly considers himself an aristocrat, in spite of his bourgeois roots, and a Pole, in spite of his swarthiness. Judaism and Jewishness have no place whatsoever in his life, the passage of which he marks, in wartime, by Christmases uncelebrated. When he is confronted with the squalor and the suffering of the ghetto--"an anthill under threat"--his attitude toward Jews toggles between indifference and disgust:
"Merely getting from the tram stop to the nearest shop was not easy. Dozens of beggars lay in wait for this brief moment of encounter with a prosperous citizen, mobbing him by pulling at his clothes, barring his way, begging, weeping, shouting, threatening. But it was foolish for anyone to feel sympathy and give a beggar something, for then the shouting would rise to a howl. That signal would bring more and more wretched figures streaming up from all sides, and the Good Samaritan would find himself besieged, hemmed in by ragged apparitions spraying him with tubercular saliva, by children covered with oozing sores who were pushed into his path, by gesticulating stumps of arms, blinded eyes, toothless, stinking open mouths, all begging for mercy at this, the last moment of their lives, as if their end could be delayed only by instant support."
No one can accuse Szpilman of being a Good Samaritan, much less of identifying with the "tubercular" Jews around him. By contrast, his book praises the charitable Poles who hurl sacks of food over the ghetto walls, and it generally downplays Polish anti-Semitism and Polish support for the Final Solution. Ukrainians and Lithuanians are bad, but Poles are almost uniformly virtuous and brave, or they are justifiably inhibited from courage by their fear of German retribution. Szpilman always refers to his oppressors as Germans, never as Nazis. Germans conquer Poles, Nazis kill Jews.
Though he is detached from the Jewish people, Szpilman remains intensely loyal to his family--to his parents and his two sisters, and even to Henryk, who assails him for playing at a decadent cafe and for begging for his release from a Gestapo prison. Szpilman's efforts to keep his family together and fed come to naught in August 1942, with the liquidation of most of the ghetto. While waiting for the train to arrive, Szpilman listens as a local dentist rants: "It's a disgrace to us all! We're letting them take us to our death like sheep to the slaughter! If we attacked the Germans, half a million of us, we could break out of the ghetto, or at least die honorably, not as a stain on the face of history!" Szpilman's father, a violinist, can only shrug and simper. "We're not heroes!" he exclaims. "We're perfectly ordinary people, which is why we prefer to risk hoping for that ten percent chance of living."
The dialogue replicated almost verbatim in the film, demarcates the polarity of Jewish choices, but Szpilman proves that there is a third way. Plucked out of line by an otherwise despicable Jewish policeman, he is spared the cattle car to Treblinka. While his family is driven like sheep to the slaughter, Szpilman is led lamb-like to salvation. First a Judenrat friend secures him work on a construction crew, and then, when physical labor proves too strenuous for Szpilman, he is made a storeroom clerk. He survives selections and arbitrary executions, but his deepest fears are of losing his concert reviews and of frostbite, which is ruining his fingers. Though his storeroom serves as a conduit for smuggled weapons, Szpilman will not fight. Rather, with the help of benevolent Poles, he hides out in vacant apartments. By the last winter of the war, Szpilman is emaciated and delirious, but he is obsessed with the danger that a splinter in his thumb poses to his future musical career.
Finally, while scrounging in an abandoned house for food, Szpilman comes face-to-face with a German officer. Instead of drawing his revolver, the officer asks Szpilman what he does for a living, and then leads him to a piano. Stiff and unpracticed, Szpilman manages to perform Chopin's Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor, whereupon the officer steeves him in an attic directly above the German headquarters and feeds him. After the Germans retreat, Szpilman emerges wearing the military coat the officer left him and is nearly shot by liberating Polish troops (in the film, Soviet troops). Only by raising his hands and shouting, "I'm Polish! I'm Polish!" does he succeed in saving himself.
The officer's name, Wilm Hosenfeld, is revealed only in the book's postscript. A recreational reserve officer in his late forties, Hosenfeld was a committed teacher and family man, an ardent Catholic who abhorred Nazism. He hazarded to keep a diary in which, on September 1, 1942, he asked: "Why did this war have to happen at all?" This was his answer:
"Because humanity had to be shown where its godlessness was taking it.... This denial of God's commandments leads us to all the other immoral manifestations of greed--unjust self enrichment, hatred, deceit, sexual license resulting in infertility and the downfall of the German people. God allows all this to happen ... to show mankind that without him we are only animals in conflict, who believe we have to destroy each other. We will not listen to the divine commandment: "Love one another" ... and must die, guilty and innocent alike."
And Hosenfeld did more than write. He repeatedly risked his life to rescue others, Poles and Jews, from extermination. These survivors, Szpilman among them, later tried unsuccessfully to obtain Hosenfeld's release from a Soviet labor camp, where he died in 1952.
After the war, Szpilman returned to his old job at the Polish state radio, and to composing music, popular and classical. His memoir, published as Death of a City in 1946 and produced as a film, Warsaw Robinson, was suppressed by the Communists, who bristled at its harsh portrayal of Ukrainians but re-released it with scenes of Soviet soldiers liberating Warsaw. The book, re-named The Pianist, re-appeared in 1999, a year before Szpilman's death. It soon caught the eye of Roman Polanski.
There are, of course, myraid Holocaust stories--of murderous kapos and of rabbis who praised God on the way to the gas chambers, of Anne Frank and Mordechai Anielewicz and Janusz Korczak (who is fleetingly seen in The Pianist as a half-mad Pied Piper clowning for his children). All of these stories are true. So, of course, is Szpilman's story. But a director who wishes to interpret the Holocaust in film can choose among many versions of its hell. Why did Polanski pick Szpilman's version? "The exciting thing was ... that it was not my personal story," explained Polanski (who had declined to direct Schindler's List because its location in Krakow was too painful for him). "It helped me re-create the events without talking about myself or people around me." A noble impulse, to be sure, except for the fact that Polanski did not merely re-create Szpilman's idiosyncratic book. He also altered, embellished, and distorted it.
The film's early scenes, for example, introduce us to Dorota--blonde, virginal, Polish, a fledgling cellist. Romance beckons between her and Szpilman, but the bond is never consummated. Dorota does manage to exclaim, "This is disgraceful!" when confronted with a "No Jews Allowed" sign on a restaurant, and again, "Disgraceful! It's too absurd," observing Jews being herded into the ghetto. Later in the film she re-appears, pregnant, and endangers herself to hide Szpilman. "No one thought they'd hold out for so long," she says to him while watching the ghetto uprising from his window. "My God, did they fight!" And when the pianist sighs, "What good did it do?" she tells him, "They died with dignity. Now the Poles will rebel."
Dorota is a fetching and inspiring figure--and a figure completely fabricated for the film. It is almost as if Polanski, too, was frustrated by the passivity and the abjection of his hero, and so he proceeded to correct Szpilman's universe by furnishing it with an admirer of heroism. But the lofty figure with which he corrects the moral and emotional situation is a Pole, an apotheosis of Polish goodness, a gentile who instructs the Jew in honor, and likens Polish suffering to Jewish suffering. She plays Mary to actor Adrian Brody's Jesus--I mean Adrian Brody's Szpilman, gaunt, bearded, weepy-eyed, unmistakably Christ-like in his agonies. In reality, Szpilman's hideout was nowhere near the ghetto. The Poles did indeed rise in revolt, but more than a year later.
Unlike the figure of Dorota, the figure of Henryk is genuine. Szpilman's brother was a bibliophile who, according to the book, "took out a small Oxford edition of Shakespeare" and read in it while awaiting deportation. But in the film Polanski improves on the historical truth, and has Henryk read The Merchant of Venice, and even recite Shylock's rejection of Christian forbearance: "If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" His is a soul sullied by anger, impervious to the sublime music that soothes his brother's (and his father's) rage. The problem is that the real Henryk was not at all a coarse creature of ethnic fury. He was himself a musician, a violinist--a fact that Polanski chooses to conceal. One cannot be an avenging Jew, you see, and a musician. One cannot demand vengeance and live.
Which brings us to the film's most poignant misrepresentation. All that we know about Wilm Hosenfeld from Szpilman's book--his long-standing opposition to Hitler, his courage, his values--is withheld in the film. Instead we are given a figure half Hosenfeld's age, a senior staff commander and Third Reich poster boy, a Nazi. Thus duped, we can easily believe that had Szpilman identified himself as a spot welder, say, instead of a pianist, Hosenfeld would have shot him instantly. Ignorant of the real Hosenfeld's character, we see him as a monster transformed by music--a particularly Germanic redemption--and music played flawlessly, implausibly, by a physically devastated Jew. Reborn, Hosenfeld can harbor the Jude, as he calls Szpilman in the film (but not in the book), and give him his coat, as Christ commands. "You must survive, God wills it," Hosenfeld tells Szpilman with a faith that is fully documented in the book but in the film seems unaccountably newfound.
Roman Polanski's contribution to the script is enormous," The Pianist's screenwriter Ronald Harwood (ne Horwitz) said. "Many solutions ... are taken from his own personal experience." That experience includes Polanski's escape from Krakow at age seven, and perhaps also the more recent memory of his flight from rape charges in the United States. Since then, Polanski has found shelter in Europe, and The Pianist is one way to express his gratitude. In accepting the Palme d'Or, Polanski declared that he was proud to direct "a film that represents Poland," and not surprisingly, The Pianist, in particular the Hosenfeld scenes, has been acclaimed throughout Europe. Filmed in Berlin and Warsaw, financed by French cable television, it is a perfect product of Europe, made for its benefit.
For Wladyslaw Szpilman is Europe's stereotypical Jew: cosmopolitan, artistic, child-like, godless, rootless, utterly unprepared for history, and averse to power. Those same adjectives describe a certain contemporary European ideal. (The unfortunate political consequences of that ideal have been analyzed sharply by Robert Kagan.) By conflating Jewish identity and European identity--note the interplay of classical and klezmer melodies in the score--The Pianist has the effect of absolving Europe of its guilt. The "true" European, indistinguishable from the Jew in his humanism and his cultivation, could not have perpetrated the Holocaust. Only a Nazi, an aberration, damned by his lust for power, could have committed that terrible crime. Yet even for Nazis there is hope. Music--disembodied, immaculate, ineffable--can redeem them. And that is the job of Szpilman, the Jew who survives by dint of his sheepishness and who turns the other cheek, this secular Semitic Christ who saves sinners with art, which is the modern European equivalent of Christian love.
Salvation of sorts also awaits Szpilman. Resurrected after the war, he searches not for his missing family--those last ties to tradition are cut--but for the German officer, and devotes the rest of his life to music, silently suffering under communism. "It's as if Szpilman had no soul, and no will, apart from an endless desire to tickle the keys," wrote The New Yorker's David Denby in one of the only shrewd reviews of the film. But the failure of the film lies not only in its emotional shallowness, but also in its moral and historical shallowness. The final legends on the screen tell not of the millions of Jews murdered in Poland, but of the fate of Wilm Hosenfeld and the undying music of Szpilman.
Brave critics took Schindler's List to task for using Jews as props for a German's morality play, and Life Is Beautiful for sugarcoating the camps. The former diminished the humanity of the victims; the latter diminished the guilt of the perpetrators. The Pianist manages to repeat both these sins. Is it really so difficult to represent the Jew as a full and free-willed human being, without diluting the horror?
Michael B. Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press).
By Michael B. Oren