Roman Polanski’s The Pianist is a story about how music by itself can’t triumph over evil. And yet, music – and the human spirit – get the last word.
The film is the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody), a concert pianist from Poland. At the beginning of the movie, we see Szpilman playing Chopin’s “Nocturne in D minor” on Polish state radio. It is September, 1939. A few minutes later, Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombs Warsaw and all hell breaks loose.
The horrifying details of the Holocaust become more and more gruesome as the movie progresses: Jews must bow to German soldiers; they can’t walk on the sidewalk; they must wear the star of David; they are rounded up and forced to live in a walled ghetto where they are starved; they are deported to be murdered in death camps. The most horrifying moments are when the Nazi soldiers show utter indifference to the atrocities they commit, like when they push a man in a wheelchair out a window or indiscriminately shoot someone for asking a question. In fact, there is so much arbitrary bloodshed that the audience is kept on edge during the entire movie, wondering when the next instant torture or death will occur. It is a tense effect that delivers only the merest glimpse of what it must have been like.
Despite it all, Szpilman survives. It’s not as though he has his music with him the whole time, or can even practice. Forced to live in the ghetto, he first finds work playing piano at a restaurant within the walled enclave. As his family is sent to their death, he survives due to the help of a friend. Through another piece of incredible luck, he is allowed to leave the ghetto to work slave labor, but is able to make contact with a former friend and colleague. She introduces him to the network of the Polish underground. As the film portrays it, this underground was made up in part of Poles who hid and cared for Jews, risking death by doing so.
Szpilman is hidden in a safe house, which turns out to be an apartment with a piano – but, of course, he can’t play it. To do so would expose himself. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes is Szpilman running his hands over the piano, pretending to play Chopin’s “Grande Polonaise for Piano and Orchestra,” hearing all the music in his head.
The rest of the movie is a nightmare of constant bombs, explosions and movement as the Nazi occupiers slowly get squeezed out by the advancing Soviet army. The Polish underground – Szpilman’s saviors – are routed or clear out, and suddenly it’s just Szpilman. We see him scrambling for food and water, alone, hiding, hopeless.
At last another savior comes…this time in the face of a German captain, Wilm Hosenfeld. In the waning moments of the occupation, Hosenfeld discovers Szpilman, and, instead of shooting him, allows him to live after learning he is a pianist. He listens to Szpilman play – on an out-of-tune grand piano in a bombed-out hospital, in the audition of Szpilman’s life, literally. The music is dramatic, inspired (it is Chopin again), and, after all of the killing the audience has experienced so far in the movie, we’re not sure if Szpilman will be shot dead in the middle of his piece or allowed to continue. Our muscles are tight until the final chord and we see that Hosenfeld is moved. So are we.
Szpilman is rescued by the Soviet army – one of only 20 Jews left in Warsaw out of 3.5 million. The movie ends here, but in real life he returns to his post at the Polish state radio station, eventually becoming the music director – and a worldwide soloist.
The music in this film is mainly Chopin. The incidental score was composed by Wojciech Kilar, who has collaborated with Polanski previously, as well as with Francis Ford Coppola. A simple clarinet theme in minor haunts the listener throughout.
Music wasn’t enough to save the victims of the Holocaust. But, in Szpilman’s incredible life story, it did allow him to woo a German captain, which saved his life. And therefore we know about him today and we have more insight into the horror of occupied Poland. Music was Szpilman’s only companion after his family was murdered. It may have kept his soul alive with an urgency that, as musicians today, we can only imagine.