The Roman Polanski award winning film The Pianist is based on the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jew, who suffered greatly due to the occupation of Warsaw, Poland by the German forces during World War II. Polanski, also a Pole, like the author, survived the horrors of that war. Neither survived unscathed and both lived to become famous artists.
Right after the war was over, Szpilman wrote his biographical account of his experiences which were published and then forgotten. After over 50 years the book resurfaced in a new edition and the movie project was developed.
The following quotes are from the book’s English edition (Picador: N.Y., 1999).
The Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and within a month had conquered the Polish army and occupied Warsaw. Conditions for the Polish citizens, especially those who were Jewish, inexorably and viciously declined.
“This was the winter of 1941 to 1942, a very hard winter in the ghetto. A sea of Jewish misery washed around the small islands of relative prosperity represented by the Jewish intelligentsia and the luxurious life of the speculators. The poor were already severely debilitated by hunger and had no protection from the cold, since they could not possibly afford fuel. They were also infested with vermin. The ghetto swarmed with vermin, and nothing could be done about it. The clothing of people you passed in the street was infested by lice, and so were the interiors of trams and shops” (pp. 16-17). If you wonder why they didn’t do something about it, then you are not appreciating the poverty and limitations imposed on them. When you are closed up in a ghetto as they were and could not earn a regular living, your focus was on survival. You didn’t have such luxuries as warm baths and clean clothes and had few resources that you could utilize to fight off the vermin.
“And each of these verminous creatures could carry typhus. An epidemic broke out in the ghetto. The mortality figures for death from typhus were five thousand people every month. The chief subject of conversation among both rich and poor was typhus; the poor simply wondered when they would die of it, while the rich wondered how to get hold of…vaccine and protect themselves” (p. 17).
Keep in mind that the ghetto the Jewish people were stuffed into held some 500,000 of them under the cruelest of conditions. “In the ghetto, there was no way of burying those who died of typhus fast enough to keep up with the mortality rate…the dead were stripped of their clothes---too valuable to the living to be left on them---and were put outside on the pavements wrapped in paper. They often waited there for days until Council vehicles came to collect them and take them away to mass graves in the cemetery” (p. 18). People were dying of typhus, of starvation, of often random and senseless murders by the German occupiers who might just shoot a child walking by because he didn’t look at the German properly.
When the German army first occupied the city they put up notices guaranteeing Jews all their rights and assuring them that they would be secure. But, like all the Germans said, these were lies designed to pacify the population until they were ready to kill them off.
Before the ghettos were created, Poles were cautiously optimistic. “At this early stage anger with the (Polish) government and the army command, both of which had fled, leaving the country to its fate, was in general stronger than hatred for the Germans…There was no lack of voices suggesting that we might even be better off, since the Germans would bring some order into the chaos that was Poland. Now that the Germans had won the armed conflict against us, however, they set about losing the political war. Their execution of the first hundred innocent citizens of Warsaw in December 1939 was a crucial turning point. Within a few hours a wall of hatred had been erected between Germans and Poles” (p. 44).
Some Jews packed up what they couldn’t sell and headed for Russia as this was the only route away from the Germans. Some were robbed, beaten and killed; however, most of them were able to make it to Russia (p. 47).
For those who remained, who eventually were forced to live in a walled in ghetto, life went on but not as usual. The Germans had the Jews form a Council to govern life in the ghetto---or more correctly, to implement policies there for the Germans. Jewish police were appointed who often were very brutal toward their own people and the members of the Council made sure Council members were well cared for even while their fellow Jews were starving. What is interesting is that cafes still were open and doing business and for some time Szpilman earned a meager existence playing at one or the other of these cafes which were frequented by those Jews who were making a profit off pain and suffering of their fellow Jews. A little over a year after the Germans occupied Warsaw, “the gates of the ghetto were closed on 15 November (1940)” (p. 59).
For years to come the Jews in the ghetto would endlessly suffer without trying to fight back. “”My parents, sisters and brother knew there was nothing they could do. They concentrated entirely on staying in control of themselves and maintaining the fiction of ordinary daily life. Father played his violin all day, Henryk studied, Regina and Halina read and Mother mended our clothes” (p. 94). This is a recurring theme in Szpilman’s story. “It was no use struggling any more. I had done what I could to save my loved ones and myself.” (p. 97). His entire family found itself at a train siding waiting to be loaded into cattle cars to be killed. They all knew that this is what was most likely to happen to them. One of the men there screamed: “It’s a disgrace to us all! We’re letting them take us to our death like sheep to the slaughter! If we attacked the Germans, half a million of us, we could break out of the ghetto, or at least die honorably, not as a stain on the face of history!” (p. 101). This is a very important position that he is taking and you can’t but wonder why? Looking back it is clear that they would have been better off fighting. And, years into the occupation, both those in the ghetto and Christian Poles outside the ghetto did fight back. However, they always knew that the Germans were the ones with the tanks and machine guns. They knew that to fight would most likely lead to death, just as the man who was urging them to fight was aware of such a possibility. However, what is interesting is the response of Szpilman’s father to the man. “How can you be absolutely certain they’re sending us to our death?” When the man admitted that he was not 100% certain but he was 90% certain, the father said: “We’re not heroes! We’re perfectly ordinary people, which is why we prefer to risk hoping for that ten per cent chance of living” (p. 102).
By a fluke of luck, Szpilman sees his entire family carted off in the cattle cars but they fail to put him on board so that is able to live on in Warsaw year after year until the war is finally over and he is free. Much of the book is about his struggle to survive. Toward the end he helps to smuggle arms into the ghetto in support of the coming uprising of the remaining half starved Jews that were unwilling to put up with the Germans any longer.
Throughout the book Szpilman describes vicious and clearly evil Germans committing terrible crimes against humanity. We are not talking about just the high ranking officers; we are talking about all of the Germans occupying Warsaw. However, he also singles out others that were at times even more brutal and evil such as the Ukrainians.
Although he documents how Jews were often evil toward other Jews as a negative, he mentions time and again how one Jew might save himself at the cost of another Jewish life without ever condemning this type of behavior. Most likely he does not castigate such actions as he also behaved in this manner.
In short, by the end of the book you are beginning to wonder how in the world they decided to make this man’s life into a movie? He is by no stretch of at least my imagination a hero. Yes, he is a talented musician trying his best to survive and he is able to do so under terrible conditions---thanks to the help of others. Credit for his survival is not due to any heroic action on his part but due to the help of Christians and Jews who were willing to risk their lives helping him hide and giving him food.
Please keep in mind that as I write this review of the book, I have yet to see the movie. Therefore, I am looking forward to watching it when I return to the United States and see how they depict Szpilman. Survival is a valued instinct. However, it alone does not make a person’s life worthy of emulation. This is no role model from what I have read. How is Polanski going to present him to the movie audience and in such a way as to win awards for this movie?
Several characters, friends of Szpilman, are in the book briefly noted and they are wonderful heroes and great role models---even though they died. One I especially admired is the one who dedicated his all to the orphans in the ghetto. At the very end of the book, Szpilman is desperately hiding out in the ruins of Warsaw and scavenging for food. He is so intent he doesn’t hear a German come up behind him until it is too late to run or hide. The German Captain is Wilm Hosenfeld, who we learn in an epilogue to Szpilman’s biography, is a devout Catholic who hates what the German’s are doing and has already save other Jews from certain death. He has Szpilman play a tune on a nearby piano and then he helps him effectively hide and provides him with food.
Ironically, one of the best heroes in the whole story is a German! His life is more worthy of a movie than Szpilman’s! I wonder how he will be portrayed in the movie and whether his very very brief role in the book will be played up in the movie?
In real life Hosenfeld survived the war to become a prisoner of the Russians and was carted off to Russia where he was held a prisoner for seven years until he died! After the war Szpilman tried to come to Hosenfeld’s rescue but his efforts were unsuccessful.
So what is the importance of this movie? Will it be worth watching because it tells a tale of survival under horrific conditions? Will it be worth watching because it demonstrates how some people (not Szpilman), Jews and Christians, were willing to risk their lives to help rescue Jews or resist the Germans?
Or will it be a warning that we all need to heed---especially Americans? A warning that even a great nation, that produced great and soaringly beautiful poets, musicians, artists, and spiritual leaders such as did Germany, can quickly move to the dark side, nurturing the evil, and create horror. What the German government did was build a great propaganda machine that convinced good people that they were superior and that Jews---and for that matter, everyone else in the world---were inferior.
Perhaps the movie will urge us all to focus on the message of love that is the foundation of both the Jewish and Christian and Moslem religions and not get caught up in the insanity of war and oppression?
What does this movie say to you?