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Online content from Vol. 7 no. 1 (2003)

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Norman Geras is Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Manchester. His books include Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend, Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind: The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty, and The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust.

Redemptive and Other Meanings:
Roman Polanski’s The Pianist

Norman Geras

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist has had a favourable reception with both reviewers and audiences since it opened in this country a few weeks ago. However, to the extent that there have been reservations about it, the main one appears to be that the film strikes a redemptive note, relieving the ambient horror of the Warsaw ghetto with its story of one man’s survival. This reservation was certainly predictable. From Theodor Adorno to Claude Lanzmann, it has become a primary commandment in the cultural treatment of the Shoah that no significant uplift can relieve this most terrible episode of the twentieth century, and none should therefore be allowed – or made – to seem to do so. The argument has its point, but it also has its limitations. In the discussion of Polanski’s movie which follows I comment on both. My principal purpose, though, is to show that too obsessive a preoccupation with the anti-redemptive taboo can have the effect of obscuring other important moral and artistic values. I shall provide some brief background to the film of one kind and another, before going on to discuss its content and what I found most striking about it.[1]

The Pianist tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman during the Second World War and the occupation of Warsaw by the Germans. Szpilman was born in 1911 at Sosnowiec in Poland and lived in Warsaw for most of his life. He died there in July 2000 at the age of 88. For two decades after the war Szpilman was Director of Music at Polish Radio. He had an illustrious career as a concert pianist and composer, including of popular songs for which he was well-known in his native country. During the German occupation he survived the Warsaw ghetto, losing his family who were murdered at Treblinka along with most of the rest of Warsaw Jewry, and after escaping from the ghetto he hid out in one house after another in Warsaw with the help of Polish friends and contacts.

Szpilman’s account of his experiences was published in Poland in 1946 as Death of a City. In this manifestation the book had a short life, the Communist authorities blocking any reprint of it. At the initiative of his son Andrzej, a German edition was published in 1998, and it was followed by translations into other languages, now retitled as The Pianist. A notable feature of Szpilman’s memoir is its low-key, matter-of-fact approach and tone, unembellished, despite its dramatic and sometimes horrific content, by any very strong expression of emotion or much in the way of interpretative comment. This applies in particular to the manner in which his vocation as a pianist is handled. For that Szpilman was a musician is itself also dealt with in the book in a quite matter-of-fact way. We learn, naturally, that it is how he earned his living, and learn too that it helped him and his family to get by in the ghetto and played a part in the end in saving his life. However, music is not self-consciously made into a central theme by Szpilman in the telling of his story. It is simply what he does. Had he been a plumber or a teacher, he might have dealt with this in the same, straightforwardly reported, way.

Rather less background information may be necessary as to who the movie’s director is. Roman Polanski’s filmography includes such titles as Knife in the Water (1962), made before he left Poland; Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-Sac (1966), both of these made in Britain; Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and, most famously perhaps, Chinatown (1974), from his period in the United States; and, more lately, Bitter Moon (1992) and Death and the Maiden (1994), among a good number of other features. The Pianist won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2002 and at the time of writing has just collected Bafta and Cesar awards in Britain and France respectively for best film and for direction.[2] It links up with Polanski’s own experience, echoing certain episodes from his childhood. As a boy he escaped from the ghetto in Krakow, was hidden by several families in the Polish countryside and survived the bombing of Warsaw. His mother died at Auschwitz. Polanski apparently declined the opportunity of directing Schindler’s List, offered to him before it was taken on by Steven Spielberg. By his own account, he was impressed by the ‘surprising objectivity [of Szpilman’s memoir] which is almost cool and scientific’. The production notes for The Pianist record that one of his aims in making the film was ‘to remain as close to reality as possible’.[3]

Part of this reality was life and death in the Warsaw ghetto, of which here are just a few details and indices. The Warsaw ghetto was formed in October 1940 and closed off from the rest of the city on 15 November. Four hundred thousand people, some 30 per cent of the population of Warsaw, had to occupy an urban space making up less than 3 per cent of the total area of the city. By the beginning of 1942 there had been fifty thousand deaths from starvation. In January of that year alone, at a collecting point for refugees at 9 Dzika Street, 63 of the 128 children there died.[4] As in other ghettos the Jewish community of Warsaw attempted, through a network of welfare organizations and educational and cultural activities, to mitigate the dreadful and deteriorating conditions. But it was impossible to cope with these. Begging became widespread. Contemporary eyewitness accounts agree in presenting a picture of child destitution. ‘There are a great number of almost naked children, whose parents have died, and who sit in rags on the streets. Their bodies are horribly emaciated… Some of them have lost their toes; they toss around and groan.’[5]

For seven weeks from July to September 1942, over a quarter of a million Jews were taken from the ghetto to their deaths at Treblinka, the round-up for this deportation being carried out with a terrible brutality that itself killed some ten thousand people. Between April and May 1943, a heroic last-ditch rebellion took place, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, under the leadership of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) which had been formed shortly after the deportation to Treblinka began. The uprising was eventually crushed by the Germans, using tanks and artillery. Within a general sea of fear, indifference and hostility on the part of much of the city’s Polish population towards the plight of Warsaw Jewry, a Council of Aid to Jews (ZEGOTA) was established in December 1942. Several thousand Jews were hidden by Poles (under threat of death for both them and their families should they be discovered helping Jews) and many were saved. All these circumstances and events figure prominently in Polanski’s movie.

There can be more than one opinion about it, of course, but in my own view amongst films about the Holocaust The Pianist is the most artistically compelling of its type there has been. I except Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah from this judgement: as a work essentially of witness testimony Shoah is not in the same category as a movie like The Pianist – one that tries to recreate a segment of the lived experience of the Jewish tragedy, to tell someone’s story through the devices of the filmed drama. In most ways The Pianist is faithful to both the spirit and the detail of Szpilman’s memoir. There are some small specific departures, but they are well within the bounds of artistic licence. Generally, the episodes and awful context of the story of Szpilman and his family are accurately reproduced: from the feel of their life in the early days of German occupation and under the impact of the first decrees against Warsaw’s Jews; through the portrayal of the effects of hunger, the attitudes and behaviour of the Jewish police, the humiliations daily imposed on Jews on the ghetto streets, and several episodes encapsulating the limitless depravity which German National Socialism released upon Europe; to Szpilman’s final ordeal as a fugitive in Warsaw, witness from the other side of the wall to the ghetto uprising and its defeat, tenuously surviving in hiding through the days of the wider Warsaw uprising in late 1944 and of its aftermath as the Germans reduced the city to a smoking ruin.

The one major, and I think legitimate, discrepancy between Szpilman’s book and Polanski’s film of it concerns the music. I mean the music Szpilman, as a pianist, had it within him to play. Even here I would not want to be misunderstood by exaggerating the difference I have in mind. It is to Polanski’s credit, in fact, that he does not overstate the place of Szpilman’s music in his story and that he does not sentimentalize it, as there might have been a temptation to do. For the most part there is the same matter-of-fact approach to it as in the pianist’s own account. Thus, Szpilman is shown on air on Warsaw radio playing Chopin when the German bombardment of the city begins in 1939; he plays in cafés in order to support the family in the ghetto; later, in one of his hideouts where there happens to be a piano, he sits at it and, unable to betray his presence by any sound, pretends to play, rehearsing a piece in his mind. These things all happened and Polanski reproduces them accordingly, much as they are reported in the written memoir. But the director’s fidelity and restraint in the matter have an extraordinary pay-off towards the end of the film, for the circumstance of a narrative that is now no longer in the first person makes a crucial difference there. As author, the central protagonist could and did treat his music as a simple fact about his existence. But in the pivotal scene in which Szpilman is discovered by the German officer who helps to save his life, Polanski for his part does not do this, and nor is there any good reason why he should.

To verify that Szpilman is indeed, as he says he is, a pianist, the German, Wilm Hosenfeld, asks him to play something. For any third-party ‘viewer’ of this episode the contrast is now available – although it was not, or not obviously, present in the first-person account in Szpilman’s book – between the smart, handsome German officer with all that he and his uniform have come to stand for, and the wretched, hungry, dirty figure of this fugitive Jew and the beauty and precious civilization he has within the fingers of his hands. Polanski duly avails himself of the contrast, delivering one of the most powerful scenes I know in modern cinema. It lifts the movie on to another plane than the book on which it is otherwise so closely based.

Here, we are at the very crux of the issue. Does this scene – and what follows it in bringing the movie to its conclusion: Hosenfeld’s assistance to Szpilman in his hiding place, Szpilman’s survival until the liberation of Warsaw, his return to a life of music – constitute a redemptive element in The Pianist? On some level, I suppose it does. To use one of the standard clichés in this domain, it lightens the darkness that has enveloped Szpilman up to now and, through him, us the audience. That he survived, that consequently there were survivors, and that in the person of this one something marvellous was preserved of the cultural values of Europe and of humankind – these things cannot but offer any watching assembly of reasonably normal moral sensibility some relief. They also happen, however, to be true. Must they be passed over in silence? The word, then, would be wholly given to the planet of death and its architects and executants. To be sure, when all is said and done nothing can ever redeem a human catastrophe of this scale, nothing at all can undo or remedy or compensate for it. Still, it does need to be known in its real proportions, in all its specificities and details; and that therefore means not only in the vastness of its cruelties and horrors, but also in whatever limits, whatever mitigations, there were to these. The proportions can certainly be awry, in both directions. This is evidenced by Roberto Benigni’s egregious Life is Beautiful, as grotesquely unbalanced a work in its magnifying of hope and would-be humour and its minimizing of the extremities of Nazi depravity as it is possible to imagine.[6] But The Pianist is not at all of the same stripe. Any critic of it would, I contend, be hard put to establish that Polanski neglects to acquaint his audience adequately with the brutalities of the milieu that Szpilman was lucky enough to survive.

When the film shows us Szpilman playing for Hosenfeld so as to confirm that he is indeed what he claims to be, both the encounter and the recital are modelled on real events. They come directly out of Szpilman’s memoir. Polanski, though, invests this scene with a certain meaning, a meaning not proffered in the pianist’s original account. Should he not have done so, in order to avoid the charge of offering redemptive consolation? But I would reckon that, unless one actually shares the values of National Socialism or some cognate thuggery, it would be virtually impossible not to see something of the same meaning as the director has seen in this episode. Even if I am wrong about that, it is at the very least a possible meaning of it, one, as I have already said, which is available to us. Why must it be ignored? For Polanski to have ignored it would have involved a double exclusion – of the encounter between Szpilman and Hosenfeld as a real part of the musician’s story, and of this truth about the encounter as a meaning, which the movie so powerfully conveys: the gleaming, meticulous Third Reich and its moral barbarism; the dirty, desperate untermensch and the cultural treasure he quite literally embodies.

Of course, investing with meaning has its own techniques and artifices, and here another critical reservation opens up. It expresses a worry about any representational ‘show’ that is based on the raw material of the Judeocide, any mere entertainment or edification. But the lines of representational legitimacy are less easy to draw than may at first appear. The written memoir of the survivor is not itself forbidden, one presumes. Such testimonies are in general highly valued, even if in relation to any particular memoir there may be reservations about some aspect of its content. A written memoir, however, is already a representation. It is not the raw experience itself, but is a telling of it; and it is thereby a structuring, a choice and omission of material, things remembered and things forgotten. Furthermore, the book of The Pianist, being a story of survival, may itself provide its readers with consolation or hope. The subjective experience of readership is not policed, and any suggestion that reading does not carry the same risks in this regard as does the archetypal medium of entertainment – film – is certainly open to doubt. Reading, although it may be work, is also an enhancement of life: for many people, as is commonly said, ‘a pleasure’. The boundaries are not policeable. What we are dealing with is a matter of balance and proportion, a matter of artistic truth. It is not a matter of representing as opposed to not representing.

The film director has recourse to the conventions and devices which are available to him, and that is as it should be. The writer, equally, has recourse to those which are available to her. Between the two manifestations of Szpilman’s story, his book and Polanski’s movie of it, discrepancies arise not only from the contrast between a narrative that is in the first person and another that is (so to put it) in the third – this difference to which I have ascribed the differing treatments in book and film of Szpilman’s music. With respect to the music, there is also the greater power of film in visual and aural immediacy, and its different relationship to real time in the way that the playing of a piece of music is ‘recorded’, as compared with the way it is merely reported in written text. Such differences accentuate the power of what I have characterized as the pivotal scene between Szpilman and Hosenfeld. But there is something more as well. For what is conveyed in dialogue in the written account can be dealt with just by visual implication on film. One detail in which Polanski’s movie departs from Szpilman’s memoir is this. In the book we get to know of Hosenfeld’s critical standpoint – his shame about what Germany has done, what Germany has come to – because he actually articulates it. Polanski and his screenwriter Ronald Harwood, by contrast, do not have Hosenfeld say anything on the subject. We are left to infer it from his expression: in the presence of what – and how – this man can play, the German’s realization of the enormity of the moral catastrophe for which his country is responsible. The indirection here contributes to the greater charge the encounter carries in the film, and the richer significance it has there, than it does in Szpilman’s book. And even if Hosenfeld’s realization, his shame and the emptiness it discloses in his face, may be accounted redemptive to a degree, the content of that realization – the sheer moral catastrophe there before him – possesses as much about it of the abyss as it does of redemption.

I conclude. Every time a movie about the Shoah appears, the same questions are repeated, and I duly came across them again in the week The Pianist opened in Britain – in reviews, on Radio 4’s Front Row, amongst friends and acquaintances. That the misgivings were more muted than usual is indirect testimony, perhaps, to the quality of Polanski’s achievement. Yet their theme was familiar. Can this tragic, terrible experience be represented, and represented in film? Claude Lanzmann is on record as being opposed to such efforts of filmic representation, efforts at recreating through film’s dramatic conventions any story for others to watch and, in some sort, enjoy. The classic reference point is, of course, Adorno: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’[7] Both the questions and the impulse behind them are understandable. For how can this moral horror, the fullness of it, be conveyed? It cannot, fully. Moreover, behind such questions there are others. How in a world where there is care, love, any human value, can these things be done, and be allowed to be done, and continue to be done seemingly time without end? But the answers to these questions are also always the same. The Holocaust and other calamitous experiences not only can be represented, they must be, whatever the difficulties. There will be those who err or fail in the way they do it. Others, though, will not, as The Pianist itself exemplifies. And if part of what is revealed in these efforts to represent the universe of pain and death is some surviving human value, so be it. Would the world be better without this, or for not being shown it? No, it would be then truly without hope, the hope that Polanski professes to have found in Szpilman’s story in spite of the enormity of the surrounding horror.[8]

[1] This essay expands and revises an introductory talk given before a screening of The Pianist at the Cornerhouse in Manchester on 26 January 2003. I am grateful to Eve Garrard and Sue Vice who read and commented on it in draft.

[2] The film has since also picked up Oscars for best director (Polanski) and best actor (Adrien Brody).

[3] Production Notes for The Pianist (distributed by the agents McDonald & Rutter, London), at p. 3.

[4] Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945, HarperCollins, New York 1992, p. 144.

[5] Mary Berg, cited in George Eisen, Children and Play in the Holocaust, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, p. 25.

[6] For my assessment of Benigni’s film, see Norman Geras, ‘Life Was Beautiful Even There’, Imprints, Volume 5, No. 1, Summer 2000, pp. 23-37.

[7] Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, Neville Spearman, London 1967, p. 34

[8] Production Notes for The Pianist, p. 3.