Art always echoes history, in fact, Miguel de Unamuno said that if we wanted to know the history of Spain, we should go to intrahistory. In other words, we should read the great literary works like Don Quixote and there we would find the true story. History as such, after all, is written by the victors. With this premise, we are about to talk about a heartbreaking film that introduces us to the Warsaw ghetto: The Pianist .
Countless films have been made about World War II, countless feature films that reveal another side of the horror that the Holocaust was, but not many are finally etched in our memory.
El Pianista exudes elegance, violence and realism, shows us the rawness without concealment and accompanies the narration with one of the greatest forms of expression we know: the power of music. Music and its absence frame this adaptation of the memoirs of the Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman.
A very personal story
Roman Polanski is one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries. However, his personal life has greatly clouded his film career; a career that has given us absolutely magnificent titles. Polanski’s life, in fact, has not only been overshadowed by the abuse scandals in which he has been embroiled, but also by a personal story in which the tragedy has made a huge impact.
Polanski lived the horror of World War II in his own flesh, his childhood and youth were interrupted by the most bitter face of the human being. He lived in the Krakow ghetto with his family; his mother, despite being Catholic, died in Auschwitz. After the war, the young Polanski studied cinema and began his career. The tragedy would return to his life with the murder of his wife Sharon Tate.
Subsequently, scandals have made him a controversial filmmaker and, despite his talent, including one of his films in prestigious venues can be a huge risk. We will not enter into judgments in this regard, but we believe that briefly reviewing his past can help us to understand a little better the meaning of El Pianista.
It seems that everyone expected Polanski to get involved in some film related to World War II, that personal tragedy would end up being brought to the big screen; but there are filmmakers and artists who prefer to mask themselves, who prefer to tell us other types of stories. As a director, he has tried a number of genres and, perhaps because of his background, he was offered to direct Schindler’s List . However, Polanski refused and, although Spielberg did not feel entirely safe at first, he ended up directing it.
Probably, at that time, the Polish filmmaker did not feel completely prepared to address the subject or, perhaps, there were other reasons that led him to reject the offer. What we do know is that, after learning about and reading the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, Polanski finally decided to return to those ghettos inhabited by Jews in Poland and, in some way, give us his own vision of them. Thus, in 2002, one of his best films was released: The Pianist .
The rawness of his images melds with a sublime elegance, with an impeccable staging that draws heavily on the music of Wojciech Kilan and the exceptional performance of Adrien Brody. The film ended up receiving praise from both the public and critics and won three Oscars: best director, best actor and best adapted screenplay.
The Pianist : Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto
If something stands out in El Pianista, it is an overwhelming realism that ranges from Brody’s performance to a perfectly descriptive photograph. Polanski involves us in this story at a time when no one could imagine the horror that was going to unleash.
We know Wladyslaw as a pianist who works on the radio, his passion for music can be seen from the first minutes. At that time, the consequences of segregation began to take shape, Jews could not access certain places, but they could still walk with a certain normality. Surely, no one could imagine what would come next.
Polanski plunges us into progressive segregation, in constant uncertainty about what will come next that will end up in a desperate attempt to survive.
This well-articulated progression is not new, we already saw it in a very different context in The Devil’s Seed . In that film, Polanski introduced us to a normality that was suddenly disturbed and, progressively, he was locking us up in a claustrophobic setting marked by terror.
We see that same resource in El Pianista ; there is nothing more real than uncertainty and there is nothing more terrifying than that progression. The same resource is used in supernatural horror fiction and awakens in us an even greater anguish in a film marked by realism. There, in a way, the essence of the film resides, in the course of events progressively, as in real life.
Life in the ghetto is deteriorating, we can barely distinguish who are the good guys and who are the bad guys because, unlike other films on the same subject, Polanski moves away, in part, from polarization. He is not afraid to tell us that in this story there are good and bad on both sides.
Of course, it shows us the most cruel face of the human being and, in most cases, we find that this face goes hand in hand with a Nazi. However, The Pianist reminds us that there were also bad Jews and, of course, that compassion also appeared at some point on the side of the Nazis.
With elegance and restraint, he does not limit himself to pointing out the culprits, because there would be too many, because almost everyone should be blamed. The filmmaker observes his character and shows us that struggle to survive in a hostile, gray world marked by tragedy.
Hunger, guts, cruelty, all this is shown openly on the screen, just as the filmmaker must have perceived it in his childhood. The story of Wladyslaw is one of the many survival and horror stories that the Holocaust bequeathed to us, one of the many personal stories that have been echoed in art.
Art in the face of destruction
Among all the horror, art keeps us alive; silences take over a pianist who must restrain himself to play a piano before his eyes. Music that, despite not being heard, is imagined while it can barely touch the keys of a piano. Not even hunger can kill your love of music.
The music and art in general represent life, hope. In this sense, Polanski performs a masterful directing work in which he relies heavily on music and realism. A work that ends up being vindictive in its final moment.
From the crudest realism, we go to victory, to the victory of life over war, of music over gunfire. That ending that El Pianista gives us is totally hopeful, we leave behind agony, injustice and let ourselves be carried away by life, by forgiveness and by one of the best things that human beings have: music.
For this reason, we started this article with that intrahistory that Unamuno told us about. Because Polanski in his film was able to masterfully capture that horror that he had perceived ; because he learned the story of an artist, Wladyslaw, who decided to put it into words to remind humanity of it. And that story, finally, crossed another barrier and manifested itself before us in a new art form: in the cinema.
The Pianist is not the story of the victors, but it is a victory, a reconciliation with the past. Because while we destroy everything, while we are perishable, art becomes a witness to our history and becomes immortal.