Amidst pain and suffering, man’s grip for his life endures with unrelenting thirst for survival. The world is filled with death yet even death cannot corrupt the indomitable strength of the human spirit—that longing and hope for something better; the motivation to put one foot ahead of the other in the never-ending struggle to continue on living. Such is what The Pianist tells and such is what Polanski wants to convey: to hold on to life and to the realization that one’s survival is solely on the care of oneself.
The Pianist tells the story of Władysław Szpilman, a Polish pianist. The film is told against the backdrop of the Nazi invasion of Poland, and the anti-Semitic war of Germany. After Poland’s defeat, Nazi Germany quickly starts their “cleansing” by first prohibiting Jews from employment and forcing them to wear an armband with the Star of David. Eventually, the Szpilman family, along with hundreds of other Jews, are placed in the Warsaw Ghetto where life swiftly turns for the worse. There they constantly struggle to survive against starvation and maltreatment. By 1942, the family are transferred to one of Nazi Germany’s extermination camps but Władysław survives after the intervention of his friend from the Jewish Ghetto Police. From there, Szpilman manages to linger on: working in hard labor, and escaping and hiding with the aid of a succession of non-Jewish friends. After hiding for quite some time, Szpilman carries on in a building among the ruined city, and there meets Wilm Hosenfeld, who, after hearing him play, feeds him and ensconces him in the attic. The Germans retreat from Poland in 1945 after the initiative of the Russians. Szpilman is once again free.
The film is an adaptation of the autobiography of Władysław Szpilman with the same title. The most striking feature of The Pianist is that it is also a narrative of the director’s struggles during the Second Word War. Polanski is also a Holocaust survivor, and The Pianist gives him a platform to tell the story of Szpilman with a high degree of authenticity. This provides the film with a palpable atmosphere that is impressively visceral. It is visceral due to its unapologetic display of starvation, hopelessness, and cruelty. It takes the audience to the core of the plight of the Jews during the Second Word War by showing inhumanity through streets lined with dead bodies, physical and emotional torments by the Nazi guards, and imageries of desperation. This is further emphasized by Polanski’s use of fades to highlight the subtle contrast between life and death.
Szpilman experiences great adversity, and the film expertly depicts his descent from cool to tortured with seamless successions of false hopes and continued essays. First, he is separated from his family only to fall victim to slave labor. Second, he escapes from the Warsaw Ghetto with the help of his friend and hides in a German-occupied apartment. Third, after absconding, he beseeches the aid of another non-Jew connection who conceals and locks him in a room. He suffers from jaundice while in hiding, and eventually is forced to flee after Germans bomb his place of refuge. Finally, he holes himself up in an abandoned building among the ruins of the city only to be discovered by a German officer. His misfortune seems to end when Hosenfeld keeps him in the attic and feeds him regularly. Unfortunately, Hosenfeld leaves him with a coat, which places him in peril against the Red Army. In the end, Szpilman succeeds in triumphing over his many terrible ordeals.
Szpilman’s endurance and constant hold to life signify the personal nature of survival. That is, despite the help of others, one’s quest for continuation ultimately lies on oneself. It also suggests a choice: keep on moving or accept defeat. Szpilman need not survive. The terrible loss of his family is enough for him to end future suffering. That loss cannot be recovered—it is as lasting as his waltz with death is fleeting. The room with the piano that he cannot touch mirrors this loss. There the piano rests within his reach but he cannot play it. He can choose to but that would risk being discovered and possibly killed. He could have stroke those keys but he chooses to move on and assert his own survival.
In the end, the film conveys a message that there are indeed two choices in life: live or die. It does not need a special circumstance to force oneself to choose. In Szpilman’s and Polanski’s case, the choice requires utmost urgency. For the rest of us, at least, the choice is as compelling as selecting which foot to move forward ahead of the other.