“Pianist” plays at cinema

Meghan Roskopf

The Holocaust is one of the most horrific events ever perpetrated by mankind. Essayist George Steiner in his 1967 book “Language and Silence,” suggests that silence may be the only appropriate response: “The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason.” Thus, filmmakers who choose to portray the Holocaust face a daunting task – coming up with an appropriate method of telling their stories without exploiting the victims of the memories of the survivors.

In 2002, Holocaust survivor and noted film director Roman Polanski took up this challenge and created “The Pianist.” Transporting its viewers to 1939 Poland, Polanski’s brutally honest story follows talented pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who miraculously survived World War II, played by Adrien Brody in an Oscar-winning performance.

Szpilman, a musician on the brink of stardom in his native country, is a revered man who lives with his family in an upscale flat in central Warsaw. As the Nazis begin to infiltrate Poland, Szpilman is offered a position on a Jewish police force which enforces Nazi regulations. Although he refuses, he still manages to avoid deportation by hiding in the entrails of his bleak city. By the early 1940s, Szpilman has seen his city go from having piano concert halls to being bombed out Jewish ghetto of Warsaw. Szpilman is alone for most of the film, since his family has been transported to a death camp. With help from the Polish resistance, Szpilman stays in safe houses, furtively witnessing the Germans’ assault. Szpilman listens to music solely in his head, tapping out the silent renditions of musical works on a wooden board. His solitude ends just as the war is coming to an end, when a music-loving Nazi officer asks him to play the piano.

Although “The Pianist” is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, it is not just his story. As a Holocaust survivor himself, director Roman Polanski put his heart and soul into the film. In fact, this is the director’s first work which overtly deals with the Holocaust and his own wartime experiences.

Certain scenes in the film, even though they are based on Szpilman’s experiences, nevertheless echo events in Polanksi’s life. Among them is one in which a young boy is caught trying to reenter the Warsaw ghetto after sneaking out to find food. Szpilman tries to pull the boy through a small opening in the wall before the Nazis can kill him. Polanski’s father, desperate to save his seven-year-old son, managed to push him through the barbed wire surrounding the Krakow ghetto. Although the child in the movie dies, Polanski of course managed to survive.

Polanski’s own survival is in a sense as random as Szpilman’s, which is perhaps why he was attracted to this story. Szpilman is not depicted as a hero, but as a survivor, as a man with a lot of luck who has faith that everything will turn out all right. By keeping Szpilman so human, Polanski makes the unspeakable horrors he had to endure that much more terrifying. After all, if these events could happen to an accomplished pianist, they could happen to anyone.

In addition to the heartfelt story, the cinematography is breathtaking. The film itself is in color, but the view of the bombed-out Warsaw looks like a black and white photograph. The effect is harrowing and beautiful as well as symbolic, for there is nothing left in the city to add color or life to this ashen landscape.

The final offering in Villanova’s current Cultural Film & Lecture Series, “The Pianist” will be shown four times in the Connelly Center Cinema: Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 3:30 and 7 p.m., and Monday at 7 p.m. Admission is $3.50 for students with I.D. and $5 for all others. The Monday evening showing will feature Silvia Nagy-Zekmi as the guest speaker. Nagy-Zekmi, chair of the Modern Language Department, will introduce the film and lead a discussion, “The Keys to Survival,” afterward.

For more information call the communication department at x9-4750 on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., or consult the CFS web page at www.culturalfilms.villanova.edu.