Sometimes history is too painful. Whether we look back on difficult moments in our own lives or those of the distant past, memories can flood our hearts and minds with emotions we would rather not feel. Though there is clearly more to it than the oversimplification I am about to give, I believe this is part of the reason why we have what has been euphemistically referred to as “cancel culture.” There are aspects of our culture once considered normal, but under the increased scrutiny of social media and the twenty-four hour news cycle appear ugly or offensive. Some of this is justified, but some of it borders on the absurd. Regardless of how we view it, the solution seems to be to brush it aside, delete it, or destroy it so that future generations can be molded . . . better? Still, there are events like the Jewish Holocaust during World War II that are so egregious that it is best that they never be wiped from our collective consciousness, if there is such a thing. One film that deals with some of the horrors of those years is The Pianist (2002), the subject of today’s review.
The Pianist starts at the beginning of World War II when Nazi Germany invades Poland. As the Germans commence the bombing of Poland’s capital Warsaw, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a young, handsome, and famous pianist, plays for a radio audience. At first nobody seems to take the outbreak of hostilities seriously, and as explosions go off in the city and Wladyslaw flees with the rest, he takes the time to ask out a young lady, Dorota (Emilia Fox). When he returns home, his father (Frank Finlay) dismisses the growing troubles, but in the next scene the German army marches into the city. This is especially bad news for the Szpilmans as they are Jewish, and soon they join the rest of their fellow Jews in the city in being relocated to the cramped, walled-off confines of the Warsaw Ghetto. While there, they try to make the best of a bad situation. The main problem is finding work, which means food, and both are in short supply in the ghetto. With Wladyslaw’s well-known musical talents, he is able to secure a position playing for diners at one of the few operating cafes. This is not without a certain stigma, however, as the establishment caters to those who are seen as collaborating with the Nazis. This is the view of Wladyslaw’s brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard). Instead of taking a job with the police force recruited by the Nazis from among the Jews, he decides to help the underground resistance developing inside the ghetto. Regardless, soon the Germans begin requiring that everyone work or face deportation. If you understand what is really meant by these words, you will know that what they refer to are the concentration camps. Already they are hearing of extermination sites like Treblinka where train cars full of people go in and come out empty. Eventually, the Germans make the decision to virtually empty the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Szpilman family, along with most of their neighbors, are ordered to a holding area where they are to be sent to resettlement areas, another pretense for the concentration camps. As Wladyslaw is about to board a train with the rest of his family, one of the Jewish policemen pulls him out of line and separates him from the others. He is told that his life is being saved, but he must watch helplessly as his family that managed to stay together through the trials of the first four years of the war are sent away without him. For a time, he is forced into hard labor with the few remaining Jews in the city. But after a few near misses where German guards nearly discover his efforts to aid the resistance, he requests the help of a non-Jewish Polish couple with whom he is friends to hide him. They do so, but when his presence is discovered by a neighbor, he is forced to flee. He had been given an address to go to in the event of an emergency, and it turns out to be that of his one-time flame, Dorota, who is now married. Unfortunately, Dorota and her husband are soon forced to flee the city too, leaving Wladyslaw alone. Things begin to deteriorate further when the tragic Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (a story for another time) begins. The Germans begin leveling the city in response, and Wladyslaw wanders alone through shattered and abandoned buildings in an increasingly desperate search for food. His pursuit leads him to a still relatively intact home where he finds a lone can of cucumbers. In his weakened attempt to get it open, he does not notice the German officer standing there watching him. It is Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), but instead of immediately killing Wladyslaw or turning him over to his men, they have a conversation. When Hosenfeld discovers that Wladyslaw is a pianist, the German officer asks the Polish Jew to play. He also agrees to keep Wladyslaw’s attic hiding place a secret, brings the starving man food, and then offers his trench coat as the German army makes its final retreat. Though this act of kindness nearly gets Wladsylaw shot when the Russian army enters the city and find him in a German officer’s coat, it does not go forgotten. Though unsuccessful, when Wladyslaw hears that Hosenfeld had been captured nearby he goes to try and see the German, only to find the prisoners had been moved. Before the credits begin rolling, they report that Hosenfeld died as a Russian prisoner of war, and Wladyslaw carried on as a musician until his death in 2000.
It is hard to watch movies like The Pianist, hence my above discussion of cancel culture. In viewing it, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the subject, you could come away from it thinking that it is over-dramatized. Wladyslaw’s father said it best when he mentions that something so absurd cannot last. The absurdity to which he is referring is the treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany. While we do not actually see the concentration camps, and if you do not know this already, the Nazis targeted everyone of Jewish heritage in the countries they conquered. Their desire was to exterminate them, as if they were pests and not people created by God’s hands. Nazi propaganda attempted to say as much, anyway. Yet, because Wladyslaw never made it to the infamous death camps, we do not see what most people think of when they remember the Holocaust. This is why a film like this one is so important. Yes, the Germans tried to murder as many Jews as they could in the camps, but they were not above casually slaughtering them outside of those terrible places like Treblinka and Auschwitz. And such was the effect of Nazi propaganda that many German soldiers believed themselves superior to Jews and in the idiotic stereotypes they fostered. This led to an offhanded cruelty that you see from every German throughout, from making bystanders dance for amusement’s sake to random murders in the street. And this is all without mentioning the awfulness of the Warsaw Ghetto. It all seems too terrible to be true, but a film like this relies on eyewitness accounts. Even if not all these things happened to Wladyslaw personally, we know that the Nazis were capable of all you see.
Because what happens in The Pianist is so tragic, it makes Hosenfeld’s character compelling. When he encounters Wladyslaw, the poor man is at his weakest. His clothes are tattered and he is generally disheveled, he has difficulty walking owing to an injury sustained while running from German soldiers during the uprising, and he is starving. Yet, Hosenfeld, a man who should by the logic of the time be Wladyslaw’s sworn enemy, takes pity on the Jew. As they are about to part, a clearly moved Wladyslaw says that he does not know how to thank the German officer. Hosenfeld replies by saying not to thank him, but to thank God. He takes that a step further by saying that it is His will that they survive. Incredible. Wladyslaw saw so many of his family and peers either die or go away. People in such situations have a survivor’s guilt, wondering why God would take the others and not them. And then along comes Hosenfeld to reminds us that it is God’s will. He made it through the entire war so that he might be there to aid another human being in their hour of greatest need. Such is all we will know if His love and wisdom, but that we can continue to draw breath is a precious miracle in itself. Wladyslaw did not forget this fact.
While The Pianist is certainly a sad movie, it does have a happy ending. Unfortunately, none of Wladyslaw’s family survived the war. While that is tragic and does mar the film’s conclusion, the fact that he was able to live through it all is a testament to the existence of miracles. Who knows why some people live and some people die? You can twist yourself into many philosophical knots trying to make sense of it all. If you are still among the living, it is best to celebrate that fact. Mourn those who have gone before us, but celebrate the blessing of life. This is what makes watching this film a worthy endeavor.