Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Pianist

Not long after the Second World War ended, Polish classical pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman recorded his personal ordeal of the Holocaust in a written autobiography. The manner in which he recorded horrors, such as the herding of his family onto ‘cattle trucks’ to be transported to concentration camps and his survival in Warsaw led me to believe that Wladyslaw Szpilman was a gentleman.

I barely noticed the quiet, modest pianist’s fingers tremble during a radio recitation while the first bombs were dropped over Warsaw. It was the prelude to his recording of his battle against starvation, surviving harsh winters and the Holocaust.

The foreword to The Pianist is written by Szpilman’s son, Andrzej. He describes his father as “a man in whom music lives.” His father was “a pianist and composer who has always been an inspiring and significant figure in Polish cultural life.” Long after the Holocaust, Szpilman was at the centre of Polish cultural and arts society.

I wondered what Szpilman’s symphonies in memory of those that died during the Holocaust sounded like. His original Polish language biography –  Death of a City – is now part of Polish cultural history.

During the first part of the text’s narrative, it is clear how close he was to his family. His father was also a gentleman, and an accomplished violinist. He describes his sister, Regina, a lawyer, as the most level-headed person in his family of six adults, all living in one Warsaw flat. Mother, father, two brothers and two sisters.

His prose has a methodical calmness about it. He is able to detach himself from events, such as the cruel treatment his elderly father received from Nazi footsoldiers. He records how his distinguished father is forced to walk to and from home in the Warsaw gutters and not on its pavements. He does show some emotion when he witnesses his family being forced onto carriages which are destined for the death camps. There is a sense of divine intervention when Szpilman pays tribute to men who rescued him from certain death. He is allowed to become one of the many remaining survivors who will contribute to volumes of testimonies of the Shoa.

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Wladyslaw Szpilman’s gentle demeanour and generosity is extended to a Nazi officer during the closing stanzas of the war when all is lost for Hitler’s Germany and the Red army marches into Warsaw. Pragmatic and equally generous, the German officer spares Szpilman’s life, gifting him with food and a German military coat to stave off starvation and keep warm during the last cold weeks of the Nazi occupation. Optimistic, Szpilman promises the officer that he will return during the rebuilding of Warsaw to play for Polish Radio. He offers to help the officer.

The officer had caught Szpilman, hidden in a crumbling attic, playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor. He paused for reflection to listen before interrupting Szpilman’s interlude.  Szpilman was unable to rescue the German who was to meet his fate in a Russian camp far away from Warsaw.

During his weeks of isolation, Szpilman compares himself to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as “the prototype of the ideal solitary.”

Wladyslaw Spzilman’s recollection of Warsaw’s occupation by the Nazi Germans is accurately confined to the years of the Second World War, 1939 to 1945. He recalls the early days of fear, living under the privileged roof of his family’s home, the Germans’ occupation, their harsh treatment and prejudice towards him, his family and their fellow Jews. He remembers their swift deployment into the Jewish ghetto’s. Long after he has lost his family forever, he credits members of the Polish Resistance for his survival.

It is hard to believe that Szpilman was not a garrulous man, but here he is able to visualize his own characterisation from memory.

Transfixed, I was deep in thought long after watching Roman Polanski’s artistic adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s story of his last days in occupied Warsaw.

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The Polish-born director is notorious for a controversial sex abuse scandal which keeps him sheltered in Europe to avoid arrest by US authorities. It is sad, because Polanski should be remembered for his most remarkable work as a producer, writer and director. In his adaptation, he leaves no stones unturned in accurately transferring Szpilman’s encounters onto a screen canvass.

At the Academy Awards ceremony the following year after this movie’s release, Adrien Brody was named Best Actor and Ronald Harwood received the award for Best Writing and Adapted Screenplay. The film deservedly garnered the award for Best Picture. It must have presented the film crew with many challenges when compared to Steven Spielberg’s earlier Schindler’s List. That The Pianist could not match the prestige and achievements of the American director is a moot point, because it is masterful as an adaptation and visual interpretation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s story and can be included in the canon of films which accurately portray events from the Holocaust.

Roman Polanski did not attend the awards ceremony to collect his Oscar for Best Director.

Earlier, I mentioned the calm, detached and detailed manner in which Szpilman tells his story. It is also worth remembering his attachment to his family. Such a detailed narrative could not be repeated in Polanski’s film, but Adrien Brody’s harrowing acting performance was an apt substitute. Full credit to Celistia Fox in casting the little known American actor.

Much like the master of method acting, Robert de Niro, Brody goes through a strenuous regimen of weight loss to create an authentic war victim. Recently, Matthew McConaughey underwent a similarly grim transformation from handsome screen icon to Aids sufferer and maverick activist, Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club. McConaughey was this year’s Academy Award winner while de Niro is remembered for his performance in Martin Scorsese’s’  Raging Bull.

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There are aspects of the film which are precise in adapting Szpilman’s narrative. Such moments include the herding of Szpilman’s family onto the cars destined for the death camps, the exposed cruelty of Nazi soldiers when they lunge a wheelchair-bound elderly man over the balcony to his death while the Szpilmans look on in horror across the street, the crucial scenes in which the Polish Resistance bravely engage the mightier, but inept German army in the streets of Warsaw while Brody’s character watches from his flat window, and the poignant closing scenes where Szpilman converses with the sympathetic German officer.

Brody skilfully uses his frail physical form to compensate for the lack of dialogue. He stumbles his way through a construction site, not physically suited to manual labour. The process of preparing his meagre meal of dried beans and boiled water as a makeshift broth and the detail of munching through clenched jaws causes the viewer to wince in horror.

The director’s gaze over the actor’s already nimble and long fingers is fortuitous.

The cinematography used in The Pianist is pristine and colourful in comparison to Schindler’s ListI wondered whether a similarly gritty and dark texture would have been more effective in foregrounding the trauma and horror of survival in Warsaw. but, perhaps that was not Polanski’s objective. The use of colour in such a story allows the reflective viewer to compare it with earlier Hollywood propagandistic and biased productions of bravado and victory which are inevitably inaccurate. In the event, there is no emphatic focus on American or Russian liberators in this film.

It remains refreshingly a Polish story told by an eminent Polish citizen.


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