History in Films: Polanski and The Pianist

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) was his comeback film that earned top awards at Cannes, Best Director at the Oscars, Best Adapted Screenplay by Sir Ronald Harwood, and a Best Actor award for Adrien Brody. What did the pianist play that saved his life? Chopin’s Nocturne No.1 in C# Minor, although in the film, Brody’s character, famous Polish pianist and composer, Wladyslaw Szpilman played Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in G Minor, (Op. 23, No. 1).

Adrien Brody played most of the piano throughout the film leaving only the truly complicated parts to a handover. These trivialities are not meant to deprive the historical obvious: how could Szpilman who had been in hiding for years suddenly be made to play Chopin with rusty fingers in the cold of winter? But it happened. The ray of light from the cracked window shining down on Adrien Brody as he played giving him an angelic glow and perhaps influenced the Nazi who spared his life for he recognized such talent was a gift from God and saw the man and not a Jew.

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What I respect about Roman Polanski’s film is the care and accuracy he took creating a historical film that remained true to Szpilman’s memoir and details added from Roman Polanski’s personal history.

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The “Special Features” disc that came along with the film was educational and fascinating. I learned Polanski’s father was shipped to Mauthausen-Gusen in Austria, where he survived the war, and his mother to Auschwitz where she was murdered. Polanski recalled a memory from a young age in occupied Poland when his father was walking on the sidewalk and a Nazi soldier punched his father and told him to walk where he belonged, in the gutter. Polanski inserted this memory into the film and it’s one of many details that create the suspense and horror of Warsaw Poland’s infamous ghetto from 1940-1943, where approximately 300,000 Polish Jews were imprisoned behind brick walls before being transferred to death camps like Treblinka.  Sir Ronald Harwood adapted the screenplay and gives credit to Roman Polanski for tapering the script to include the details that married two survivor’s accounts making the film doubly poignant.

Speaking of Personal Histories

I respect Roman Polanski’s talent as a director. Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson was magnificent. I thought Rosemary’s Baby was horrifying. The Pianist will be his masterpiece. I feel the man’s personal history is more incredulous than any story he has put on the screen. Ghastly childhood. Ghastly end to his marriage with Sharon Tate. Ghastly charges and indictment on seducing a teenager. It’s a paparazzi heaven.

My question to you all is: Does it matter? Can you remove the scandals from the man and judge him on his work? Are we qualified to judge the good he’s done by artfully bringing to light a story of the human condition in Wladyslaw Szpilman? Do we disfavorably weigh and discredit Polanski because of his past? Is there any another man in Hollywood who creates such ambivalence?

I think you should view the film. It’s more important than the man who created it. Better yet, read the memoir.

7 thoughts on “History in Films: Polanski and The Pianist

Add yours

  1. Its a fascinating debate Cindy. Personally I can separate the man from the movies but it feels weird to do so. He’s certainly had an eventful and tragic life. I haven’t seen The Pianist but I love Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown so I’ll try to track it down

  2. I usually can separate the artist from scandal. Polanski has done remarkable work. All of those you’ve cited are among my favorites, too. I just not have him anywhere near my daughter, to be honest. Wonderful write-up, Cindy.

  3. Oh man, you made me feel so guilty for not having seen The Pianist yet. I’ve heard great things about Brody’s performance, but wow I didn’t know he played most of the piano playing. That’s amazing.

    1. Awww, don’t feel bad, Ruth 🙂 It’s hard to watch Holocaust films; you know they’re gonna be a downer. However, the ending is lifting and makes it all the worthwhile. The beautiful music sure helps, too.

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