Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Polanski and the Pianist |
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Polanski and the Pianist

Roman Polanski’s new film The Pianist is a work of genius on every level, except, alas, for the press-pack promotional slogan attributed to the director himself. ‘The Pianist is a testimony to the power of music, the will to live, and the courage to stand against evil.’ If he actually said it, he flew in the face of his own masterpiece, which is a testimony to none of those things. In the Warsaw ghetto, the power of music, the will to live and the courage to stand against evil added up to very little, and The Pianist has the wherewithal to respect that sad fact and make sense of it. In the Warsaw ghetto, what counted was luck, and the luck had to be very good. The odds were almost impossible to beat. For the Nazis, that was the whole idea. To sum up his story in a sound bite, Polanski would have done better to borrow the two words everyone remembers from one of his previous triumphs: ‘It’s Chinatown.’

In Chinatown the bad guys did what they wanted, and so they do in The Pianist. The central story is about a survivor, the famous young musician Władysław Szpilman. At a critical moment, his talent saves him. If this had been the only message, the film would not even have had the merits of Schindler’s List. Steven Spielberg did his best to stave off the uplift, but inevitably he was stuck with a denial of what Primo Levi said was the real story of the Holocaust, which was not about anybody’s survival, even his: the real story was about the drowned, not the saved. If Polanski had compounded the same fault by suggesting that a gift for playing Chopin could get you a free pass, he would have been in the same case as Spielberg only worse. But in fact he does an even better job than Spielberg of making sure that in watching the lifeboat we don’t forget the ocean of annihilation it is trying to cross. At the end of The Pianist you would need to be very dense to think that Szpilman, who lived to play the piano again, had managed to do so by any mechanism except blind chance.

Spielberg offset his story of the saved by two main devices: the symbolic device of the little girl in the red coat — the only splash of colour in a black and white film — and the purely realistic device, employed with unprecedented verisimilitude, of showing the scope of the crime through violent incident. In Spielberg’s camp, a Jewish woman tells the guards that they are mismanaging the construction of a new building. The Nazis agree with her suggestions but shoot her anyway, for having spoken. The incident stands out for its poisoned richness of implication. In Polanski’s ghetto, such incidents arrive one after the other. They are each as powerful, and what is more they join up seamlessly, in a continuity of horror that would keep your hands over your eyes if your hands could move from the armrests of your seat. In Schindler’s List we have to imagine how the little girl in the red coat goes to her doom; which leaves the possibility that we might not imagine it. In The Pianist, the little boy trying to wriggle back through a hole in the ghetto wall after a foraging expedition on the outside perishes right in front of your eyes. Szpilman is trying to pull the boy through the hole to safety. On the other side of the wall, the guards are kicking the boy to pulp from behind.

By the time Szpilman pulls him through, the boy is dead. Szpilman’s sensitive face (in actuality, which he might have trouble getting back to after this, it belongs to Adrien Brody) registers the shock of an offence that goes beyond injustice. Throughout the film his face is an instrument for registering shock: first the shock of incredulity, and then, gradually but steadily, its decline into shock as a steady state, where not even the worst outrage is beyond belief. The screenplay is at its subtle best when the trapped victims are tricked by their civilized past into giving irrelevant responses to the unimaginably barbaric present. People keep saying ‘It’s disgraceful.’ The words are comically inadequate, and that’s their point.

Levi described the paralysed reaction — the stunned absence of reaction — of people bred to gentility being hit in the face for the first time in their lives. In The Pianist, Szpilman’s father is hit in the face for walking on the same footpath as the SS. He still doesn’t get it, and has to be instructed to walk in the gutter. Frank Finlay does a typically solid job of impersonating a decent man who, had he been capable of slyness, might have figured out the advisability of walking in the gutter before they told him to. But Polanski soon proves that no amount of cleverness can outfox the wolves. In the ghetto, the only smart thing left to do was join the Jewish police. Polanski is brilliant at not shirking this crucial issue. You can see how it happened, and are easily persuaded that you might have made the same choice. (A decent impulse might even have helped you make it, by convincing you that you could be useful at the right moment — and indeed it was a Jewish policeman who saved Szpilman at the very doorway of the boxcar that would have taken him to the gas chamber.) It is a pity that we are not shown the Jewish police being loaded on to the last train out, by which time most of them had realized that their complicity had bought them only a postponement. But Szpilman is in hiding on the outside by then, and his viewpoint rules the movie, so he does not see the dupes being shipped off.

Duping them had been one of the Nazis’ chief pleasures, because dreaming up new moral dilemmas was a Nazi sport. The idea was to create a world in which nothing a Jew could do was right. It had been so since the Nazis came to power, when among the first things they did was to concoct regulations that would face the Jews with impossible choices. Victor Klemperer’s diaries give us a comprehensive survey of these. Punished for staying and punished for trying to leave, punished for not arriving at work and punished for boarding the tram to get there, they were reduced to neurosis. Klemperer walked more and more often to the funerals of people who had committed suicide. Speculations about when the Final Solution began are essentially a waste of breath. The massacre started in 1933. The only reason nobody noticed was that the first victims died by their own hand.

As a mechanism for duplicating hell on this side of the tomb, the Warsaw ghetto was a construction of diabolical ingenuity. Polanski is ingenious enough to match it, and show it for what it was: a torture garden whose inhabitants would become fully acquainted with a fate worse than death before they were taken away to vanish in the comparative mercy of the Vernichtungslager. From the viewpoint of the truly dedicated Jew-baiter, the drawback of the Aktion Reinhard extermination camps was that too many people died too quickly. Treblinka was particularly reprehensible in that regard. Auschwitz is more famous now because the gas chambers and crematoria had holding camps attached and a few people lived to tell the tale. Treblinka was a fast-track from the arrival platform to the chimney: nobody came out. For the sort of fanatic who thought that the Jews needed an education in despair, it was some compensation to know that the ghetto’s atmosphere, a cocktail of fear and hope, could not be breathed for a single hour without a month of torment. Polanski breathed it in Krakow when he was a boy. We can see now that what it did to his heart and brain affected all his films on the way to this one.

But not even Death and the Maiden has the awful force of this one. In its masterly command of detail, weak points are hard to find. A possible one is the casting for physical appearance. Szpilman and his cultivated family might possibly have looked like film stars, but there was no need, even in filmic terms, for the SS to be such a bunch of porcine plug-uglies. They were certainly swine in real life, if you can call their life that: but here they look as if they have been raised for their bacon. The facts were otherwise. In the early days, before it started to run out of home-grown all-Aryan manpower, the SS would recruit nobody who had even one filled tooth. They were villains, but they didn’t necessarily look it. Here, the SS rank and file have fat necks to fit their behaviour, which rather misses the deeper point. Against this, however, it should be said that one of the most blood-curdling acts of arbitrary violence in the movie is the casual work of a young man who looks like the offspring of Leni Riefenstahl and an Arno Breker male model after a torrid night in the pine forest. Appearing out of the blue, he selects half a dozen victims from a work detail, makes them lie face down on the pavement, and shoots them one after the other with his pistol, calmly reloading to shoot the last one. He looks magnificent doing so. You can quite see why he believes himself racially superior to anybody on earth.

The excessive good looks of another German might be less appropriate, or too appropriate: the Good German who hears Szpilman play the piano and spares his life. As Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, Thomas Kretschmann is better-looking than Klaus Maria Brandauer when young, and has the warm, deep voice of Chancellor Schroeder in boudoir mode. But it might have been true, and Hosenfeld almost certainly looked heaven-sent to Szpilman, by then only an inch from death. What we miss from the compassionate Captain, however — and we can’t have it, because he would have had to supply it himself, thus straining credibility beyond measure — is an outline of the miraculous run of luck by which it happened to be him who walked in on the huddled fugitive. Hosenfeld is a Wehrmacht officer, not SS, but an absence of lightning flashes on the collar was no guarantee of an absence of icy splinters in the heart. Although some of its generals later on saved their skins by pretending differently, the regular army was always well aware of what the murder squads were getting up to in the back areas. Very few Wehrmacht officers would have failed to turn Szpilman in, no matter how well he played Chopin. (And at his life-or-death audition, incidentally, and on a piano strangely in tune after months in the dust, he plays with the mighty force of Sviatoslav Richter: a rather unlikely show of strength for someone weak from hunger.) Hosenfeld just happened to be one of the very few. Filmically, there was no way to show this fact except with a subtitle: THE ODDS AGAINST THIS WERE A ZILLION TO ONE. It was a fact, but the fact remains an unfathomable mystery, although there are very good reasons, after the unfortunate success of Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, to reassert the ragged truth against a neat myth, and insist, by any legitimate means possible, that eliminationist anti-Semitism was far from universal among the German population when Hitler came to power. At the last election that gave him the whip hand, 56 per cent of the electorate failed to vote for him. It would be a bad case of wishful thinking, however, to believe that all those people afterwards went on being anti-Nazi to the point that they would break the law. The law against harbouring Jews was the biggest law you could break, with death as the penalty. Hosenfeld really did break it, but the film finds no means of telling us that an even more unlikely event than Szpilman surviving to meet Hosenfeld was Hosenfeld arriving to meet Szpilman. It was something that could only happen in the movies: the reason why the movie was eventually made. A more typical Polish story was that of Bruno Schulz, the greatly talented writer and painter who was protected by SS officers in the Drohobycz ghetto while he painted murals: protected, that is, until one of them shot him. No movie there. Less filmable still was the story of Arthur Rubinstein, who was born in Łódź but didn’t clap eyes on its ghetto until the war was over. He had been practising his art elsewhere: the only guarantee that the power of music and the will to live might prevail.

Another weak point was probably unavoidable as long as Szpilman’s eyeline defined the scope. Quite apart from Szpilman, who got to play the piano only in a restaurant for the ghetto’s black-market plutocracy — another embarrassment that the film doesn’t shirk — the ghetto was rich in musicians who played for all comers. Chamber music groups kept on giving concerts right up until their trains left. Modern Germany’s greatest literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki tells the story in his autobiography. Many times he crossed the same bridge that dominates the film, the bridge between the main ghetto and its smaller annexe. People would cross that bridge just to hear music. Since the bridge could not be crossed without risk of a beating, the consolation they sought must have been magnetic in its attraction. It would have been good to see some of that, if only to offset our irrepressible trust that Szpilman’s music might have had powers to soothe the savage breast. The chamber music in the Warsaw ghetto would undoubtedly have delighted Mengele and Heydrich, both of them serious music lovers. But it would not have changed their minds. That was the power of music: spiritually great but practically zero. Like the musicians in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, the musicians in the Warsaw ghetto went to the ovens. Had we seen them go, we would have had yet more evidence of how remarkable it was that Szpilman did not, and that Hosenfeld made sure he did not. But films can’t show us the whole of history. They can only hope not to distort it, and this one tries commendably hard not to.

One last possible flaw could have been fatal if left unattended. When the insurrection of April 1943 is being planned, one of the younger characters, correctly told that the rebels will have no chance, says that at least they will die with honour. No doubt pared back under the rigours of production, Ronald Harwood’s script is nevertheless a work of moral subtlety at the high level we have come to expect from him on these subjects. Though crippled in the theatre by the extent of what it could not show but only say, his play about Furtwängler touched on every point that mattered, and his script for Operation Daybreak, the film about Heydrich’s assassination, is one of the most considerable works in the genre. (If only the film had been as good as the script: but Timothy Bottoms as a Czech commando gives you an idea of what The Pianist might have been like if it had been made under the Hollywood conditions that the self-exiled Polanski is supposedly longing to return to. Think Brad Pitt with a prosthetic nose.) Harwood must have known that on this point about death with honour he was courting glibness. But the visible action — and no doubt he was heavily engaged there too — protects the truth. Except as a gesture, the revolt fails terribly, giving us cause to remember that although the few combatants did indeed die with honour, the many non-combatants who died previously did not do so with dishonour. The dishonour all belonged to their persecutors.

On this point, as so often when the Holocaust is in question, one of the main opponents of sanity is our own fantasy. In the wishful thinking that saps our thinking, we can’t help wondering why all those obedient victims didn’t gang up at a given signal and fight back with their bare hands, as we would have. In our minds we have mighty powers, like Steven Seagal: our hands are deadly weapons. But the hands of the murderers weren’t bare: they were holding rifles and machine pistols, and those really were deadly weapons. It is a tribute to the film, and a service to historical truth, that the revolt in the Warsaw ghetto is kept in perspective. In Sobibor, the breakout was led by Russian soldiers who knew what they were doing. In the ghetto, the insurgents were mainly untrained civilians. They took a heartening number of their tormentors with them, but that was it. The issue was already decided before the flame-throwers were brought in, and the tanks soon had nothing left to shoot at. Hannah Arendt took account of the uprising in Sobibor but thought she was being realistic when she said that the place to resist was in the ghetto. If only she had been right. It was too late even in the ghetto. It had been too late even before the Nazis came to power. It was too late when Hitler, still a long way from the Reichstag, preached extermination and got away with it, because the police of the Weimar Republic were dissuaded from acting against him. From then on, the Jews of Germany and of all the countries that Hitler later invaded had no chance of stopping what would happen to them, and the majority of the German people that voted against him had no chance of stopping it either. It was Chinatown.


Before deciding to direct it himself, Stephen Spielberg offered Schindler’s List to Polanski. In press accounts, Polanski is usually reported to have turned the job down because he believed that the lasting turbulence of his childhood memories would have affected his ability to work. Perhaps so, but another explanation might be that he didn’t want to tell a story about the saved, when the real story was about the drowned. He might have been able to modify the script towards an even more intense realism of detail, while subtracting some of the uplift that marks almost every Spielberg project no matter how dedicated to a sense of tragedy. (I say ‘almost’ because Spielberg showed, with Band of Brothers, that he could seize the opportunity offered by a television series to steer clear of the hokum that marred its big-screen progenitor, Saving Private Ryan.) As a director, Polanski had always been able to impose his bleak vision on producers who wanted something more cheerful. For the closing scene of Chinatown, even the writer, Robert Towne, wanted virtue to win out — a conclusion that would have suited the studio. Polanski made sure that malevolence carried the day. But he would have been hard-pressed to do the same with Schindler’s List, which is essentially a neo-Talmudic tale about a group of people being saved by a benevolent intervention: true to the facts, but misleadingly consoling about their context. (It should be said in haste that they were Jewish intellectuals who first and most firmly pointed out that this new Talmud of divine interventions and miraculous escapes was a blasphemy against historical experience, and not just against the scriptural tradition.) The story of The Pianist was about just one man being saved by a sheer fluke while everyone else was murdered. Here was a narrative much more congruent with Polanski’s view, and he was able to bring all his unsentimental skill to making the most of it on screen.