In an oft-quoted remark, the philosopher Theodor Adorno claimed that after Auschwitz, all poetry is barbaric. What about music or movies? In a scene in Schindler’s List, one of the greatest Holocaust movies, a Nazi officer plays a piano seemingly unaware of the butchery his men commit around him. So much for Beethoven, and Spielberg as well, who goes soft in the final act of the film, allowing sentimentality to undermine its clarity, truth, and beauty.
Not so Roman Polanski. His adaptation of The Pianist, the memoir of a Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish concert pianist who survived the Holocaust by hiding out in the Warsaw Ghetto, reasserts the validity of music, movies, and poetry as well in the face of history’s greatest nightmare.
Played by Adrien Brody in a masterfully restrained and ultimately devastating performance, Szpilman is first seen performing Chopin’s C-sharp-minor Nocturne for Warsaw radio. His face has the aquiline beauty of Kafka, his tie and suit are elegant, his hauteur is impeccable, and he barely misses a note even when the bombs start falling as the Nazi onslaught on the city begins.
The opening recalls Ernst Lubitsch’s sweetly savage comedy To Be or Not To Be (1942), in which the show must go on despite an air raid and does so, managing in the end to undermine the horrendous reality that disrupts it. But Szpilman’s art was not quite the equal of the Nazis’ evil, and neither was his and his family’s imagination capable of grasping the extent of the horror to come.
At first it seems easy irony when a shot of Szpilman’s family drinking a toast to better days after hearing on the BBC that Britain has declared war on Germany is followed by a cut to Nazi storm troopers marching through the streets. Szpilman’s father, played with touching grace by Frank Finlay (who had the title role in the TV movie The Death of Adolf Hitler) especially embodies this spirit of stunned incredulity and deluded hope. Whenever dad says, "Things could be worse," they invariably are, with the next cut to more draconian restrictions, ghettoization, deportations, and doom. This slow encroachment of the Final Solution has been done before on screen, but never with such suffocating authenticity. The terror feels palpable, and the victims cling to the virtues of civilization, decency, and hope with desperate faith.
Or, as in Szpilman’s case, they cling to the ideal of art, or at least its trappings. The family Bechstein piano has long since been pawned to buy bread, but the pianist still maintains his wardrobe and his air of urbane aloofness as he steps over corpses to play for the "parasites" — Jews who have made money exploiting the hardships of their fellows — in the Ghetto cafŽ. Indeed, Szpilman’s faith in his Muse might be warranted — he escapes a final round-up of Jews by hiding under the cafŽ stage, and his pre-war reputation and circle of artistic friends helps gain him refuge in a series of safe houses. He survives two uprisings and numerous close calls — if this were not a true story, or a Polanski movie, no one would accept the coincidences. When Szpilman finally can play Chopin on a piano again, he not only saves his life, he vindicates it.
Or does he? Szpilman chooses survival when he had a chance to join others who died fighting, "with dignity," as one character puts it, "not as a stain on history," as another insists. Like many artists, however, Szpilman maintains an Olympian detachment. So does Polanski, who himself escaped the Nazis as a Jewish child in Krakow, and whose wartime experiences no doubt color every frame of his work. Why, then, some have complained, is he so absent in this most autobiographical of his films, allowing his images of the Holocaust to take on an almost generic cast?
Aside from the obvious objection that The Pianist is another person’s story, Polanski’s seemingly cold objectivity is illusory. Details emerge with the shocking, absurd vividness that can come only from traumatic experience: a dead woman frozen in a pose that looks balletic, an invalid in a wheelchair tossed from a window. Motifs recur that have shaped Polanski’s body of work, in particular the image of the hapless observer trapped in an apartment observing the horror from a window, waiting for it to seek him or her out, that make Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant so creepy, claustrophobic, and irresistible. As Polanski depicts it, Szpilman’s ordeal was a rear window on the greatest crime of all, one that neither artists nor voyeurs can fully escape.