Cinema has found many ways to approach the Holocaust. The masterpiece “Schindler’s List” tells the true story of how one man, in the face of the worst possible horror, made a difference and saved over a thousand lives.
The deeply moving, and sometimes comical, fantasy “Life Is Beautiful” portrays the struggles of one man to shield his son from the realities of being Jewish in a Nazi-controlled world. Documentaries like “Shoah” and “The Last Days” offer firsthand testimonies of this dark era from those who survived concentration camps.
Released earlier this year, “The Grey Zone” tells the true story of Jews who chose to assist the Germans in order to extend their own lives. Then, plagued with guilt, they revolt in a final act of true courage. Now comes “The Pianist,” winner of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival Best Picture Award, which tells another true story of a survivor.
“The Pianist” depicts the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman, a Polish classical pianist, was somewhat of a celebrity until the occupying German army moved him and his entire family into the Warsaw ghetto.
His move into the ghetto is only the beginning of his struggle. The film tells the story of the next five years of Szpilman’s life—a life filled with narrow escapes, moments of hopelessness and great loss. Szpilman, played beautifully by Adrien Brody, becomes physically a shell of his former self, a metaphor for the emotional and spiritual transformation that he undergoes.
The film is filled with many of those gut-wrenching moments that have become a part of Holocaust films. Their impact is not lessoned here. Director Roman Polanski, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, shows enough to remind the audience just how horrific the world around Szpilman is.
Can anyone witness the things he does, including seeing his own family corralled into a boxcar to be delivered unto their death, and still be called a survivor? The closing moments of the film let the audience know what happened to Szpilman after all he endured, but there is no way a film can adequately convey all of his internal changes.
“The Pianist” is a personal epic. There are vast shots of destroyed Warsaw. There are crowd scenes, and many moments of chaos and violence. Lots of characters come into and out of this story—so many that they sometimes become confusing.
Ultimately though, this is the story of one man’s struggle. Szpilman has many people who assist him when he is in the ghetto and while he is a fugitive, but he ultimately survives because of his own personal strength, ingenuity and will.
It is not surprising that Polanski, director of such films as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” would one day return in film to the dark experiences of his own childhood. Nor is it surprising that he would choose to make such a personal film about the Holocaust.
Many are lauding “The Pianist” as the best film of the year. It has a stellar performance by Brody, who underwent some of the same physical changes that Tom Hanks did two years ago for “Cast Away.” The production values are phenomenal. The sets and effects, especially in the last hour of the film, are a wonder. The script contains many powerful moments where not one word is spoken.
Polanski’s “The Pianist” marks another great cinematic achievement, and it deserves a place alongside the other Holocaust films. It is a clear reminder of how evil humanity can be—a lesson we should never forget.
Roger Thomas is pastor of NortheastBaptistChurch in Atlanta.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and brief strong language
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Ronald Harwood
Cast: Wladyslaw Szpilman: Adrien Brody; Dorota: Emilia Fox; Capt. Wilm Hosenfeld: Thomas Kretschmann; The Father: Frank Finlay; The Mother: Maureen Lipman.