The Pianist: The Holocaust in Film

BradleyCollege Papers, Religion, Undergraduate Work0 Comments

Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist

Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist

The Pianist, released in the United States in 2003, is a biographical, historical drama about the struggle of a Polish Jew to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. The movie is based on the autobiographical book of the same name, written by Wladyslaw Szpilman about his own experiences surviving the Holocaust in Warsaw. The film also incorporates some of the childhood memories of the director, Roman Polanski, who also survived the Holocaust. In the film, Szpilman is a brilliant pianist living in Warsaw who, along with his family, suffers the increasing restrictions placed on Jews under Nazi occupation. Eventually, he is forced into the Warsaw ghetto along with his family and the rest of the Jewish community. Later, during the liquidation of the ghetto, he manages to evade deportation, but his family isn’t as lucky. He briefly survives as part of a work detail and then escapes and remains in hiding in various places in the city until the war is over.

Szpilman, near the end of The Pianist, caveman-like and dehumanized.

Szpilman, near the end of The Pianist, caveman-like and dehumanized.

One of the main themes in the film is the degradation and dehumanization of the Jewish people who suffered through the Holocaust. Szpilman, who begins the film as an accomplished pianist, epitomizes the gradual slide into a state of inhumanity as the film progresses. The first restriction of his status as a human being is the implementation of the racial laws that restrict Jewish people from entering or using public facilities, which sets Jews apart from and below the non-Jewish residents. The next step down occurs during the ghettoization of the Warsaw Jews, restricting their ability to interact with “normal” people. Jewish businesses are seized. Jews are placed in a situation where they have to fight over food and living space like animals competing for territory.

The closing scene of The Pianist, where Szpilman's return to humanity is shown through his performance.

The closing scene of The Pianist, where Szpilman’s return to humanity is shown through his performance.

When the Jewish population in the ghetto is rounded up to be exterminated, Szpilman is attached to a work crew that is, presumably, left alive to deconstruct the Warsaw ghetto. At this point, he has been completely devalued except insofar as he is able to labor, a long fall from where he began as a cultured and talented pianist. Ironically, after he escapes the ghetto, he becomes caged up in an apartment, first out of fear of leaving and then because he is literally locked in, like a caged animal. When that situation falls apart, the last vestiges of humanity slip away and he is depicted as an animal scavenging for food wherever he can find it, first in the abandoned hospital and then in the bombed out wrecks of houses. It is only after the war that the restoration of his humanity occurs, which is demonstrated by the closing scene of Szpilman playing in concert to a crowded room.

Szpilman, on a street in the Kraków Ghetto, after Nazi liquidation of the Jewish community.

Szpilman, on a street in the Kraków Ghetto, after Nazi liquidation of the Jewish community.

An interesting recurring theme in the film is the depiction of city streets. The streets in this film are definitely used as a visual tool to indicate status or mood. The increasing violence against Jewish people after the Nazi invasion is shown through the scene where the old man is struck by the Nazi patrolman and is made to walk in the gutter. In the Warsaw ghetto, the dehumanization of the Jews is shown through the crossing guards that make random Jews dance with each other in the street, while waiting to cross over the road for non-Jews. The worsening situation is shown through the constant appearance of bodies in the street in different stages of decay. After Szpilman escapes the deportation, a long shot is shown of him walking, alone, down a street littered with luggage, clothing and furniture, perhaps to emphasize the scale of the deportation and how alone he is.

When Szpilman is on the work detail, the plight of the Jews is emphasized by the abundance of food and vibrant life in the Warsaw street market. Even the colors seem brighter in that scene, as if to emphasize the vitality of local life compared to the gray drudgery of what Szpilman endures. This isn’t the only scene where color is important. As Szpilman’s situation worsens, the colors in the film get progressively darker, until the war ends and golden light floods the scene when Szpilman and his colleague go back to the farm to try to find the Nazi officer that helped Szpilman survive.

After escaping the work detail, in both apartments and when he is in the hospital, Szpilman’s view of the world is restricted to what he can see on the streets outside his window. The last dramatic view of the streets in the film is when Szpilman is escaping the hospital and the camera pans up to give us a top-down, long shot of bombed-out buildings. When compared to the long shot of the street full of luggage and empty buildings after the deportation, this scene of bombed out buildings is probably meant to indicate the difference of degree in Szpilman’s isolation. Now, there really is no one around, not other Jews and not even Poles.

One of the great ironies of the story is that Szpilman found his greatest security when he was literally sitting on top of the Nazi headquarters. As the film progresses, Szpilman receives help from various people. In the beginning, he is helped by his family. In the ghetto, he is helped by other Jews. When he escapes the deportation, he is helped by a Jewish collaborator. When he escapes the work detail, he is helped by ordinary Poles and then the Polish resistance. At the end of that road, he was given the food that kept him alive until the end of the war by a Nazi military officer. What does it mean? Being a true story, it probably doesn’t mean anything, but it’s an interesting coincidence and a window onto the complexity of the situation. Schindler wasn’t the only Nazi with a kind heart, though it may be argued, especially because of the scene where the Nazi captain is in the Russian POW camp, that he may have been kind to Szpilman specifically because he realized he was a man with influence that could possibly help him if he were captured.

In The Pianist, Jews are portrayed as victims of an outside ideology. In the beginning of the film, Szpilman seems to fit in quite well with non-Jewish members of his community and was in the process of developing a relationship with a non-Jewish woman. Though I’m unfamiliar with World War II history in Poland, the Poles in the film do not generally seem to be favorably disposed towards fascism and an underground resistance movement is shown as active and willing to help Jews escape into hiding. The Pianist is an outstanding film that helps explain the horrors and dehumanization of the Holocaust.

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