September 1, 2019 is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the combined Nazi and Soviet invasion of Poland, which marked the start of World War II.
This episode of SoundsReels explores producer and director Roman Polanski's 2002 film The Pianist and will take you back to that moment in history and into the harrowing true story of Polish-Jewish concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman's struggle to survive the brutal realities of the Polish invasion and the Warsaw Uprising.
Based on Szpilman's memoirs, The Pianist received many awards, including three Oscars, two British Academy Film Awards, seven Cesar awards from the French Academy of Cinema Arts and Techniques and a Golden palm at the Cannes Film Festival. The honors most frequently bestowed were Best Actor to Adrien Brody, for his portrayal of Wladyslaw Szpilman, Best Director to Roman Polansky and Best Film.
The film's score consists of new music by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar and significant moments from some of the piano works of Poland's most famous musical son, Frederic Chopin. The score won a French Cesar Award, but all told, the film received only a few nominations for Best Music.
Why did this film about a noted concert pianist and titled The Pianist not receive more hardware for its music? The answer might have to do with the story of the film itself. But the moments at which music does and does not sound throughout the film are powerful factors in the telling of Władysław Szpilman's stories – the outward story of his struggle to survive in circumstances that crushed others, and the inward story of his identity as a musician.
The opening scene of The Pianist is full of the sounds of Chopin, as the visuals show historical footage of Warsaw in 1939, then cut to the inside of a Polish radio studio, where Władysław Szpilman, played by Adrian Brody, is playing the piano. The soundtrack for The Pianist features the playing of Polish pianist Janusz Olejniczak throughout.
Poland is especially proud of the Polish-born Chopin, who is best known for his extremely virtuosic piano music. Including Chopin's piano music in this initial scene is much more than an obvious move. It firmly establishes the setting of the film in Poland – specifically in Warsaw, the nation's capital – and in the world of a gifted pianist. The scene also sends a message of Polish nationalism at the dawn of a story about the war that, as has been said, Poland would come to lose twice – first to the Nazis, and later to the Soviets.
The Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 turns the lives of Szpilman, his parents and his three siblings upside down. They are forced to adhere to new anti-Semitic policies, to leave behind most of their possessions and to move into the section of Warsaw the Nazis designate as the city's new Jewish district, which would come to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto.
To alleviate his family's poverty and hunger, Szpilman sells his piano for a pittance. The family is marched with the city's other Jews to take up residence in the Jewish district. In the lot below the window of their new dwelling, the family see German workers building the wall that will separate the ghetto from the rest of Warsaw. The music that accompanies the family's trek to the Warsaw Ghetto - Wojciech Kilar's version of likely a Jewish folk tune – takes on an ominous tone.
The visuals cut to a crowd scene in which a group of Jews stand near streetcar tracks. A klezmer band – a powerful musical signifier of eastern European Jewish culture – appears onscreen and in the soundtrack, and Nazi soldiers order pairs of Jews to dance together, bidding the musicians to play faster and faster and egging on the dancers to keep up with the music. The scene twists the Jews into mere playthings of the Nazis, who pervert soulful klezmer music into a cheap dance tune.
The political events that unfold over the rest of the film prevent Szpilman from playing a piano for the next three years. For this reason, piano music ends up being scarce in The Pianist – scarce, but not completely absent. And the moments where piano music does sound are emotionally significant.
Szpilman's parents and siblings are taken by train to the labor camp in Treblinka. Szpilman himself is spared this fate when a Jewish associate, working as a policeman on behalf of the occupying Nazis, pulls Szpilman from the crowd marching toward the trains.
Szpilman activates his network of non-Jewish friends, who over years risk their lives to hide him in apartments outside Warsaw's Jewish district and in plain view of the Nazis. In one apartment Szpilman hears piano music through the wall to the next apartment.
For a moment the music takes him away from his troubles. An explosion in the distance brings the music to a halt, and the visuals show plumes of black smoke billowing over Warsaw. The date is April 19, 1943 – the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the occupying forces.
Months later, Szpilman hears piano playing again through the apartment walls. While scavenging for crumbs in the kitchen of the apartment, he knocks some dishes out of the cupboard, and they crash to the floor. The piano playing stops, and a neighbor knocks on the apartment door. She exposes Szpilman as a Jew, and he flees in the snowy streets of Warsaw to an emergency address.
The woman who opens the door at the new address is none other than an old friend, a cellist who is now married. Her husband hides Szpilman in a second apartment in what is described as "a very German area" of occupied Warsaw.
The apartment is furnished with, among other things, an upright piano. Szpilman knows it is too risky to make any noise. But he has not been able to touch a piano in years. Szpilman lifts the cover off the keyboard and removes the protective cloth inside. As he sits down at the keyboard, the sounds of the orchestra parts of Chopin's "Grand Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22" fade in. The camera shows us Szpilman's hands held up over the keyboard, then descending toward the keys as though to play.
For the first phrase of the piano part, the camera shows Szpilman's face in calm concentration, and we're not sure whether or not he is actually playing the piano. Then the visuals cut to show the pianist's fingers moving in time with each note of Chopin's score but not actually touching the keys.
The music allows us to share this moment intimately with Szpilman and with no one else around him – Chopin's music is inwardly in Szpilman's ears and outwardly in ours. All at once, the film's soundtrack lets us hear the pianist's soul and the soul of besieged Poland.
More time elapses. The allies are bombarding Germany. Szpilman continues to grow haggard. The date August 1, 1944 – the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising – appears on screen. Shooting begins in the streets below Szpilman's apartment. Szpilman watches the violence until an explosion blasts through one of the walls of the locked apartment, enabling Szpilman to escape.
Szpilman makes his way by stealth through the abandoned buildings around him. The visuals show scenes from inside the nearby building that had been used as a hospital for soldiers brought from the Russian front. Medical equipment is strewn about. Piano music – again Chopin – fades in and the visuals show Szpilman sitting amid the destroyed clinic fingering the music on an imaginary keyboard in mid-air. In the midst of devastation, he clings to Chopin, to music, and to the pianist inside.
Nazi soldiers blow torch each building on the street, including the makeshift hospital. Szpilman flees and takes refuge in an empty home nearby. He scours the kitchen for food and finds a can of pickles. He carries the pickles up the ladder to an attic, which he uses as a hiding place. The first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata fades in on the soundtrack, to an exterior shot shows evening settling on the destroyed buildings of Warsaw.
The next day, Szpilman takes the can of pickles back downstairs and finds a fireplace tool with which to open the can. The can drops to the floor and Szpilman turns around to see a uniformed Nazi Army officer – Captain Wilm Hosenfeld – starting back at him. During the controlled exchange between them, the Hosenfeld addresses Szpilman in German with the formal form of "you" – "Sie" – and asks him if he works there. Szpilman says no and tells Hosenfeld that he had been a pianist.
The officer takes him to a piano nearby and orders him to play something. Szpilman sits down at the keyboard. His hands emerge from frayed cuffs. In a now-iconic scene, he begins to play Chopin's "Ballade in G Minor." Written on his face is resignation to the stark reality that Szpilman might be performing his own swansong.
If Hosenfeld kills him, Szpilman at least will have played the piano – and Chopin's incomparable music – one last time. The visuals crosscut between Szpilman and Hosenfeld, who sits in rapt attention. For the few moments the music lasts, Szpilman, Hosenfeld and Chopin all speak the same language.
No spoilers here, but we know how the war turned out, and Szpilman's careers as a pianist and as a composer are well documented.
Above: A 1985 ABC news feature about Wladyslaw Szpilman on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Warsaw.
Thre are long expanses of time during The Pianist without music of any kind. During those stretches, the film’s soundtrack is largely run over by the sounds of war – guns, tanks, breaking glass, shouting and screaming.
In the face of those violent moments, the musical moments become that much more special. They allow us to escape from the outer world of strife and conflict and take refuge in the inner world of the human soul. And they remind us that instead of going to war, we can always go to music.
Listen to SoundReels by subscribing to the Classical 101 Podcast. Listen to SoundReels as a part of the Classical 101 Podcast on the WOSU Public Media mobile app, on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. And make sure to leave a rating and review!
Listen to more great film music during the Summer Festival of American Film Music on The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Tuesdays on Classical 101.