Polanski Hits a Sour Note in ‘Pianist’

Truth to tell, I didn’t start to despise “The Pianist” — Roman’s Polanski’s Oscar-nominated film of concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoirs of Warsaw during World War II — until the very end of the film: The war has ended and a friend has taken Szpilman to a farm in the Polish countryside. There used to be a Soviet POW camp there, where the Nazi officer who spared Szpilman was asking for him. Now there is no trace of that internment camp.

When the movie ends, a title card informs us that the Nazi, Wilm Hosenfeld, died in a Soviet camp in 1952.

It is a strange scene and epilogue. For some, this demonstrates the arbitrariness of war; the Nazi hoped that helping a Jew would pay off — it didn’t.

But for me, this sequence was far more troubling. When I think of a small farm in Poland set up to hide the existence of a camp that used to be there, I don’t think of a Soviet prisoner of war camp.

What comes to mind is Treblinka. After the 1943 uprising, the Nazis razed the camp, plowed the land and set up a farmer in a farmhouse so that no one would know the terrible secret of the more than 870,000 murders that took place there in little over a year — murders that included Szpilman’s brothers and sisters, his parents and most of Warsaw’s Jews. Yet there is no title card to tell us the fate of Szpilman’s family.

Is Polanski saying that the Soviets were as bad as the Nazis? I say Polanski (and his screenwriter Ronald Harwood) and not Szpilman, because the title card about Hosenfeld is not part of Szpilman’s memoir. Szpilman’s memoir ends with his freedom in Warsaw and a visit to a suburb where he sees a human skeleton and mourns that “there are no such remains of my sisters, beautiful Regina and youthful, serious Halina, and I shall never find a grave where I could pray for their souls.”

That sentiment Polanski chose not to include. I find the choice reprehensible.

Szpilman does add a postscript describing the visit to search for the German officer whose name he never knew and whom he hopes is safe. Szpilman describes Hosenfeld this way: “The one human being that I met wearing German uniform.” That distinction is also one that the film does not honor.

Polanski’s moral relativism is also shared by Szpilman’s son. The Picador paperback edition of “The Pianist” includes a foreword by Szpilman’s son, who writes, “I’ve lived in Germany for many years, and I am always conscious of the painful absence of communication between the Jews and the Germans and the Poles. I hope this book will help to close some of the wounds that are still open.”

So whose movie is this anyway?

My objection to “The Pianist” is not about whether it is a good Holocaust movie or not. To the extent it is true to Szpilman’s memoir, it can’t be faulted. Szpilman’s feelings about Hosenfeld are understandable in the context of what he endured.

Today we call it “Stockholm Syndrome,” where prisoners begin to feel so grateful to their captors for any kindness that they come to venerate them. Just ask Patty Hearst or Elizabeth Smart. But that does not excuse Polanski, who, I feel, has a much larger agenda.

“The Pianist” is not so much Szpilman’s story as it is Polanski’s apologia for his life. Polanski has said that he could never film the story of his own survival — that would be too much to bear. But to the extent “The Pianist” is about Polanski, I find the movie to be meretricious in the extreme.

Basically, Polanski’s “Pianist” makes the case that we should cut artists a break. Throughout the movie, Szpilman is granted special consideration, because he is a “Pianist”: his parents get work passes, a Jewish policeman pulls him off the train bound for Treblinka, non-Jewish co-workers from the radio station hide him and introduce him to other Poles who feed and shelter him, until finally a German officer spares him after hearing Szpilman play for him. Szpilman’s survival, it turns out, is not random. It is because he is an artist.

This is also the story of Polanski’s life. Although born in Paris, Polanski was a child in Krakow when the war began. Separated from his parents, he survived the Holocaust hidden in the countryside by non-Jews (he spent some time literally escaping in movie houses).

After the war, he was reunited with his father (his mother died in Auschwitz), became a child actor and was later accepted at the Lodz film school. Polanski’s status as an actor and then a film director afforded him a better life under the Communists.

Being a film director allowed him to leave Poland and work in England. Being a film director brought him to Hollywood and afforded him a lifestyle known only to a few. And finally, being an artist has allowed him asylum in Europe under circumstances that surely would have meant extradition back to the United States for nonartists.

The parallels go further: Szpilman experiences bombs falling on Warsaw, the start of the war, the arrival of the Germans and many events, including the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the attack on the German police headquarters, even the Germans’ eventual withdrawal from Warsaw and the arrival of the Russians — all from behind a pane of glass.

In a similar fashion, Polanski, as a director, has also spent most of his life behind a lens. Even the notorious incident leading to the charge of statutory rape has always been described as something that occurred during a photo shoot.

Which brings me to my final comments: We know that the Holocaust did not discriminate among Jews — religious, nonreligious, rich, poor, all were subject to fate. Artists were given no special breaks.

Recent publications about the work of Bruno Schulz and a current exhibit on art created in death camps (at The Jewish Museum in New York) make clear that the artistic impulse survived during the war, even as the artists themselves were murdered. Polanski has chosen to adapt Szpilman’s Holocaust memoir, and with that I have no quibble.

“Schindler’s List” which, for better or worse has become a reference point in any discussion of films of this era, provides an important contrast. Although there are many reasons to critique the film, in “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg put his ego aside and used everything he knew about filmmaking, every trick in his bag, to make the most compelling film possible.

Polanski’s “The Pianist” is just the opposite: In the end, it fails because it is all about Polanski’s ego.

Polanski has remained in Europe rather than face American Justice for a crime that he does not dispute he committed. He asks the sentence be mitigated because he is an artist. He remains abroad because he fears the argument will fail in an American court.

In my opinion, it has failed on film as well.

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Copyright 2003 Tommywood