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The Pianist brings the Warsaw Ghetto to life
Surviving the Nazi horrors

Review by Brian Jones | February 7, 2003 | Page 9

MOVIES: The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski, written by Ronald Harwood and Wladyslaw Szpilman, starring Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann.

IN 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman played the last live music heard on Polish radio before the artillery hit that signaled the beginning of Nazi occupation. Roman Polanksi's new film, The Pianist--based on Szpilman's memoir--begins with that last radio session and follows Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) as he struggles to stay alive while everyone around him is dying.

It depicts Szpilman, who was Jewish, and his family as they are increasingly targeted by the Nazis. First, they are barred from certain public places, and later they are rounded up, stripped of their possessions and crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto.

From the opening scenes of the film, there is an air of disbelief, of a protest that is threatening to burst forth but never does. And there's shock at witnessing the horrors that the Nazis got away with.

In one scene, Szpilman's family toasts the news that Britain and France have declared war on the Nazis--but these "liberators" don't show up for another four years. Despite the fact that the U.S. government knew early on about the roundup and slaughter of Polish Jews, it didn't lift a finger.

However, ordinary people did eventually resist the Nazis, most notably in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1942-43, which is depicted in the film. Polanski, himself a survivor of the bombing of Warsaw and the Cracow Ghetto, went to great lengths to portray the Warsaw Ghetto as accurately as possible--and it shows.

Some 300,000 Jews were crammed into the ghetto, and a brick wall was built to cut it off completely from the rest of the city. Inside, the Jews scraped together a living any way they could, but many succumbed to hunger, so the streets were littered with dead bodies.

At one point in the film, an old man and an old woman fight over a bowl of cereal, spilling it on the street. The old man eats it off of the road, while the old woman cries.

But not everyone was hungry. Some ghetto residents did well by collaborating with the Nazis and taking jobs as Jewish police, keeping the rest of the population under control. Wladyslaw and his brothers were offered these jobs, but refused. Instead, Wladyslaw gets a job playing piano in a café for the "parasites"--the wealthy Jewish collaborators.

After narrowly avoiding being herded on a train to the death camps, Szpilman escapes the ghetto, moving from apartment to apartment where his Polish friends hide him. He battles hunger, illness and the constant threat of being discovered.

Szpilman's life is a truly remarkable story of survival, but he is primarily a spectator of the events around him. Hiding out for a large part of the film, he observes the ghetto uprising and the Polish resistance only from his window.

Szpilman is a witness to incredible events, but not much of an actor in them. As a socialist who runs an underground printing press in the ghetto tells him, "You musicians don't make good organizers."

Nevertheless, musicians make for great music. The film's best scene is when a German officer finds Szpilman in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, and discovering that he was a pianist, commands him to play. This is his first chance to play since leaving his home years ago, but the dashing, young, flirtatious musician from the opening scenes is long gone.

Adrien Brody deserves credit for this convincing transformation. His face is twisted with hunger and his fingers bent from the cold, he stares at the keyboard for a moment, rubs his hands together and tentatively begins to play. The music that pours out of him is furious and gentle at the same time. The performance will bring tears to your eyes.

As Bush prepares to occupy Iraq, one can't watch this film without thinking about all of the Szpilmans that are daily being ground up by capitalism. The Pianist is a truly moving film, but audiences will have to look elsewhere for a sense of why these horrors occurred.

For a political explanation of the rise of the Nazis, read Donny Gluckstein's fantastic book, The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class. And for an account of the heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising by one of the surviving participants, read Marek Edelman's The Ghetto Fights.

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