Watching The Pianist, I saw a city in which I used to live. I remember Warsaw, Poland as a place full of parks, restaurants, people and events. It’s the capital of my home country and it’s a lively city. I remember its ambiance of energy, politics, business and smog.
I went to see the movie partly because of its Oscar buzz and partly because I felt the need to watch it out of patriotism. After all, it was a movie made by, produced by, directed by, starring and about Polish people. It spoke to my feelings of nationalism.
The Pianist is about a Polish Jew, Wladyslaw Szpilman, who was a famous pianist and composer for the Polish National Radio before and after World War II. He survived the war, and, like many, wrote about it. But his book was different. Extremely well written, it was more of a report than a memoir. Almost cynical in style, it contained the memories of the author, but no commentary — the straight facts make a big enough impression.
And from an amazing book came an astonishing movie. Unlike Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful, it takes a different view on the Holocaust. It’s not about concentration camps and gas chambers. Instead, it shows how one man was able to survive when 6 million others died.
The movie is strikingly simplistic. The minimalist and aesthetic denial of the rich visual representations may be misconstrued for an unimaginative depiction of reality.
There are other movies that show the Holocaust, the Jewish and Warsaw uprisings and the occupation of Poland. But The Pianist is not about war, uprisings and destruction. At least it’s not primarily about that. It’s about the fragility of life, art and ethics, and about how easy it is for those things to be lost to violence.
While to some, this movie is only about a Jew and his perils in the Holocaust, it’s about so much more. Szpilman was a Jew. But more than a Jew, he was a Pole. In an interview he did less than two months before his death in 2000, he emphasized that point.
“I don’t feel Jewish,” Szpilman said. “I’m not denying my heritage — the proof of that is that I didn’t change my last name. It sounds just like it did. But I feel more Polish than Jewish. I was born in Poland, I grew up there, and it is my homeland. I can live in the entire world, but I want to die in Poland.”
So, this movie was not only about a Jew. Sure, it was about a person of Jewish origin, but it was a movie about Poland. Poles were persecuted by the Germans just as the Jews were, although in a different manner. The Slavs were next in line to the gas chambers after the Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals. Thus the film impacted me as much as it would anyone Jewish — I knew that my family who lived and fought during WWII was just waiting its turn for destruction.
Fortunately, both Szpilman and my family survived, if only by mere chance, and I was able to experience The Pianist as just another movie. And just as Szpilman went on to write songs praising the new program of the communist party in Poland, my family managed to escape the claws of this oppressive and violent regime, and I sat in a dark theater seeing the city of my childhood fall to ruins in front of my eyes.
Contact Olga Robak at firstname.lastname@example.org