“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.”
— George Bernard Shaw
It is often difficult to understand the present even if you know your history, but watching Polanski’s movie “The Pianist” can at least help us to understand the greatness of music as an artform and that humanism can be found even in the darkest places and situations. Inspirational, educating and deeply touching it is indeed reflecting very important topics from the saddest sides of humanity.
“The Pianist” is based on the autobiography of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who was playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor live on the air in a Warsaw radio station when the first German bombs fell.
In this article we present the movie and some relevant related historical material about Szpilman’s life story.
We also share free scores of all the pieces in the movie soundtrack for anyone who believes that the world could be a slightly better place if more people would play and listen to classical piano music.
A remarkable proof of the power of music is condensed in the scene were Szpilman plays Chopin’s G Minor Ballade for the German officer (2:03:20). Who knows what was going on in his mind at that moment? Whatever he was thinking and experiencing in that moment, it apparently changed the destiny of life for both the preformer and the listener. And that is a true story.
The Pianist – Full movie (2002)
The Pianist – Soundtrack (free piano sheet music)
Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (1830)
Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 1
Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1
Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38
Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23
Waltz No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 34, No. 2
Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4
Andante spianato in G Major & Grande Polonaise brillante in E-flat major
Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4
Wojciech Kilar (1932–2013):
Moving to the Ghetto Oct. 31, 1940
Ludwig van Beethoven:
Moonlight Sonata Movement 1, Opus 27 no.2
Szpilman’s autobiography, “The Pianist,” came out just after the war. The communist forces in Poland suppressed it because it didn’t “accurately” portray the official view. For example, Hosenfeld was kind, as a German, and some of the Jews in the film were not kind. The “good German” spoiled the communist’s portrayal of every single German as a murdering psychopath beneath a tame exterior.
Adolf Eichmann was described by his Jewish captors after his arrest in 1960 as being the epitome of the “banality of evil.” The book presents Szpilman’s existence during his time in the ruins of Warsaw as “the banality of survival.” Unlike other movies, it wasn’t about brandishing weapons and single-handedly taking on entire companies of Nazi infantry. Instead, it’s about the mundane chores of finding bread, having clean clothes, and not having to soil oneself when needing to use the bathroom.
The book, too, is about one man’s ability to maximize his chances of survival by giving in to his need for help and shelving his monumental pre-war ego so that he can ingratiate himself to the people upon whom he must depend for his survival.
Both the book and the film of the same name attempt to paint Szpilman as a survivor whose harrowing tale both honors and gives voice to the millions, many of whom are faceless and nameless, who perished not only in the Holocaust itself but also in the war and its accompanying methods of killing. More than 60 million people died during World War II. Szpilman’s story deserves to be told to show that even in that maelstrom of death and depravity, survivors do exist and triumph through their banality.
About Wladyslaw Szpilman
Born 1911 Sosnowiec – died 2000 Warsaw, Poland
Descended from a long line of Polish Jewish musicians, Wladyslaw Szpilman first trained as a pianist at the Chopin School of Music in Warsaw. In 1931 he moved to Germany to further his studies at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. After returning to Warsaw in 1933, he earned a growing reputation as a performer and composer of both classical and popular music. In 1935 he became house pianist for Polish State Radio in Warsaw. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and when enemy bombardment forced the closing of Polish State Radio, Szpilman’s performance of Chopin’s C sharp minor Nocturne was the last live music broadcast. Szpilman continued to concertize and write new music after Warsaw’s Jews were resettled in the ghetto in October 1940. He eventually escaped the ghetto and spent the remainder of the war hiding out, under increasingly harrowing conditions, on the “Aryan” side of the city. Szpilman’s account of his survival, Death of a City, appeared in Polish in 1946. Retitled The Pianist, the book has been published in English and several other languages.
Wladyslaw Szpilman – Memories
– a documentary about the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman by Studio Filmowe Kalejdoskop (2004) broadcast by TVP Kultura.
“The Pianist” hero – Wladyslaw Szpilman Interview
Roman Polanski’s hero Wladyslaw Szpilman in the interview with David Ensor of ABC TV on 17th January 1985 – featuring anchorman Peter Jennings
Film Analysis: The Pianist – How Polanski Depicts Survival
This video essay explores the elements that enabled Polanski to depict the horror and brutality of the Holocaust, while also showing enormous restraint and showcasing the human will to survive through such bleak circumstances.
It compares “The Pianist” to “Schindler’s List.” Both highlight the terrible finality of “The Final Solution” and the war, but notes that the Spielberg film focuses on one man’s struggle to save the Jewish people as a whole whereas Polanski’s film is merely about one man’s survival.
Another point is that the scenes depicting Jewish suffering in “The Pianist” come from Polanski looking into the mirror of his life. He also makes the point that it’s unusual for Polanski even to have attempted this film at all because of his own suffering.
The filmmaker underscores also the “dumb luck” that allowed Szpilman to survive when so many others did not. Polanski also had such good luck, and it is the assertion that the story Polanski tells truly is a mirror of his own life as applicable to Szpilman’s.
What Film Critics Said
Here is what three of the most influential film critics had to say about the film right after it’s release in December 2002.
In film critic Roger Ebert’s review of “The Pianist” he praised the film for being neither sentimental nor thrilling. It simply was. The film is a testament to the combination of the kindness of strangers and blind luck that led to Szpilman’s survival of both the war and the Holocaust.
He points out, too, that the story mimics Roman Polanski’s own. Polanski himself says that his mother’s death in the gas chambers haunts him terribly to this day and that only his own death will cause the hurt to cease. Polanski, Ebert notes, was merely a child when he escaped and had to rely on begging and the kindness of strangers to survive.
Ebert describes Polanski’s handling of the small vicissitudes of the plot as “masterful.” The bit about Hosenfeld and Szpilman was particularly effective. Further, he remarked that Polanski’s honesty and lack of sentimentality were key factors in his awarding the film both a thumbs-up and 3.5 stars out of four.
The Guardian compliments the work of cinematographer Pawel Edelman as much as it does Polanski’s brilliance. The mood of shabbiness and desperate austerity underscores the film’s “sustained seriousness.” The Guardian errs, however, when it says that the scenes with Hosenfeld are “tough to take.” The film is based on Szpilman’s own words in his memoir, and Hosenfeld was a real German officer who really did save Jews and really did contribute toward Szpilman’s own survival.
“Still, The Guardian does bow to Polanski’s vision and compliments the film, as did Ebert, on its lack of traditional tropes by portraying Szpilman as a survivor instead of a rifle-wielding resistance fighter by day and subversive pianist and artist by night. The film is quite true to Szpilman’s real story, which consisted of a lot of staying in safe houses and not doing much of anything for months and even years on end. The film doesn’t go into the horrors of the death camps. We merely know that his whole family was butchered. The film doesn’t deal much with the Resistance or with the two uprisings because Szpilman wasn’t directly involved.”
The New York Times praises Polanski’s taking of Adrien Brody as Szpilman on a journey from “dandy” to a spectre steeped in claustrophobia and desperation. The Times also notes Szpilman’s acidic humor and the fact that certain Jews actually did survive the Holocaust as patently absurd. In Poland, especially, where 99.8% of all Jews met their deaths during the Holocaust, this is heart-wrenchingly true. Szpilman’s story, simply by being true, stretches credibility. He was absurdly lucky to have survived. From Hosenfeld’s intervention to the kindness of certain Jews who were less-than-savory characters who “sold out” the the Nazis, Szpilman swaggered through the destruction of Warsaw with an ever-decreasing worldview. The Times goes on to say that the encounter with Hosenfeld is not contrived, as The Guardian opined, but that it is a central and absolutely crucial scene in the film because it underscores the incredible absurdity of what went on in Poland from 1939 until its liberation in 1945. Hosenfeld asks Szpilman what he will do when “this is all over.” And, Szpilman says, “Play the piano on Polish radio.” The Times notes that he did do just that until he died.
Wladyslaw Szpilman was a fine pianist who survived the Holocaust and even performed concerts after the war and surviving for nearly five years alone in occupied Warsaw. Before the war, Szpilman played Chopin often on Polish radio. In September 1939, on or soon after the eighth, which is when the Nazis reached Warsaw, Szpilman was playing Chopin on the radio as the Nazis attacked. Although the initial Nazi victories seemed ominous for Poland, there was a generally buoyant mood throughout the government and with people who were in the know. That was because both England and France had promised both military and economic aid and intervention in the event of a Nazi attack. With England, those promises came in the form of an official alliance.
Unfortunately for the Poles, however, the western powers reneged on their promises and the alliance and left Poland to hang in the breeze at the mercy of the mighty Wehrmacht. They both declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939, but they concentrated on Western Europe. Poland was doomed. This disgraceful act is now known as the Western Betrayal. Although the British could only muster four divisions for the expeditionary force, they did nothing whatsoever. They didn’t even make a peep when Russia invaded Poland on September 17, 1939. Emboldened by the west’s craven inaction against Nazi and Russian aggression, the two invaders carved Poland up between them as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Against this backdrop, Szpilman was a voice of Polish pride, his music speaking to Polish hearts. When he fled home, he was one of the hopeful citizens that counted on British and French promises. He is even more crushed when Poland surrenders on October 6, 1939. The atrocities committed against the Polish people almost defy belief. Old men in wheelchairs were tossed out of windows. Nazis and Russians slaughtered entire families during rousts just so that they wouldn’t have to take care of them. And, of course, the Holocaust, although in its infancy, began its inexorably evil destruction. Indeed, of the 3 million Jews living in Poland in 1939, only a few thousand survived until April 1945.
Szpilman and his family were put into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940. They had to struggle to survive. Dead bodies were everywhere. Food was so scarce that sick children were left to die so that well children could eat. Szpilman obviously couldn’t play during the occupation, but he developed a hardness borne of desperation. In 1942, just before he and his family were about to be sent to Treblinnka to be killed, he received a personal reprieve. A friend who was a member of the Ghetto Police shielded him, but the price was horrific. His entire family was taken away. None of them survived.
Even though he survived that catastrophe, he was still a slave laborer within the ghetto. He toiled from sunup to sundown every day, which was a miserable existence. One day, he hears about a plan to rebel against the Nazis, and this became the first Warsaw Uprising in 1943. It was unsuccessful and was brutally put down. Szpilman’s hiding place was discovered, and he had to flee to a second safe house. There, a piano taunts him mercilessly because he knows he dare not play lest he be discovered. He nearly starves while in this location, developing jaundice and other nutrient deficiencies.
The Second Warsaw Uprising goes down in 1944, and the building where Szpilman is hiding is blown apart by tank shells. He has to flee again for his life. He “ducks and weaves” for months, skirting the edges of the destruction of Warsaw. One day, he sneaks into a house to see if he can find something to eat. There is a can of pickles in the house, and he ravenously attacks the can, trying to open it. A German officer, Hauptmann Wilhelm Hosenfeld, catches him. He takes pity on the starving wretch, not only letting him eat the pickles but also, upon finding out he’s Szpilman, inspires him to play Chopin’s Ballade in G-minor on the piano that was abandoned along with the home.
Hosenfeld brings Szpilman food and allows him to hide in the attic, most likely saving his life. Hosenfeld is well-known as a class act who helped Jews throughout the war, often at great peril to himself. He attended mass at Polish churches, which was strictly forbidden. He was certainly no Nazi. When the Red Army liberates Warsaw, Hosenfeld gives Szpilman his greatcoat and tells him that he will listen to Polish radio after the war to hear his friend play. Hosenfeld survived the war but died in a Soviet prison camp in 1952 from injuries brought on by torture. The Russians incorrectly blamed him for spying and for war crimes committed by other members of his unit.
Szpilman, however, survived and performed Chopin’s Grand Polonaise brilliante both live in person and on the radio. He died in the year 2000 at the age of 88.
Further reading about “The Pianist” related to the current situation (March 2022):
Kyiv Is About to Fall and So Is Hard-Earned Peace!
What do you think?
Most of us never experience extreme circumstances of danger and deprivation — we can’t know what we might do. Below are some questions for contemplation.
What is the role of an artist in times of profound crisis?
Many characters in the film are morally ambiguous. Are acts of kindness less worthy when motivated even partially by self-interest? Is film an effective medium for communicating the ethical complexity of these acts?
Historic topic in Piano Forum from 2002:
Movie: The Pianist