The Pianist From the opening moments of this movie Polanski layers on the symbolism with a trowel. Gunshots and bombs disrupt Szpilman’s piano playing, they have to hide their money in his father’s violin, the nazis throw their neighbour out the window for no reason god oh god will it never end- and that’s just the beginning. Once the Szpilman’s move into the ghetto Polanksi dispenses with the trowel, grabs us by the back of our necks and suffocates us face down into the bewildering grimy b-movie that was the Jewish experience of the second world war. His characters step over dead bodies on the sidewalk, and weave their way through crowds of parent-less children and distraught wives. There is always someone crying or wailing in the background. The nazis are brutal and grotesque with inane grins on their faces as they commit bizarre atrocities. The ghetto is a constant nightmarish gotham but, unlike Spielberg, Polanski refuses to couch this in artistic black and white, instead forcing us to view it all in the cold light of day. The colours are muted yes, but this has nothing to do with lens filters and everything to do with the layers of dirt that cover the city- a literal reminder of the s*** they have to live under everyday. Under Polanski’s direction, every aspect of daily life is an exaggerated contribution to ghetto hell, the soundtrack is turned up way loud so that even chewing food and eating gruel is an interruption to intellgent thought. Polanksi is unashamedly symbolic and why not- he’s got a point to get across and by god he’s going to force it to its absolute limit. This is a movie deliberately directed at the west– Polanski redefines the horrors of the ghetto by giving his characters the hearty english accents of childhood classics like The Railway Children. By doing this, he forces the viewer to frame Polish Jews inside the gentle ‘civilised’ culture we associate with the educated British accent, rather than a Polish or Jewish accent which most western movie makers portray as, at best, lower class and at worst, comical. And in the middle of this chaos is the relentlessly transcendent Szpilman. But this is no heroic champion of the people, he doesn’t run guns, or operate an underground railway, he saves no one’s life except his own, he doesn’t fight the Germans he runs from them. This is a man who is persecuted by everybody: ghetto-ised by the nazis, starved and left to die by a man who is supposed to help him, and then, eventually, abandoned by the world. He wanders through the surreal ruins of the town like a man on an alien planet. Unable to find food or water, limping, thin as a rake a bearded Jesus-like figure. He is the ultimate victim – frustratingly passive, seemingly unaware of the political, always watching from behind a curtain, only ever active when its almost too late, if at all, operating on instinctual levels of self-preservation that have nothing to do with skill or bravery and is ultimately self-centred. He is a mundane every-man who is, literally, yellow- his cowardlyness physically manifested as he suffers from jaundice.
So what makes us accept his salvation against the millions of others we know who died during WWII? Largely it’s his phenomenal talent on the piano that gives him an excuse to bow out of the fight. His obsession with music gives him a voice even when he can’t use it, and a way of escaping the muck of war. He spends his time in hiding imagining piano pieces rather than plotting revenge. Intelligent audiences today understand that vengeance is never simple, that every act of violence has a consequence, even if you’re the good guy fighting the bad guys, nobody is ever completely bad or completely good.. In the end, his final saviour is a nazi soldier. We would never have believed this soldier’s grace possible if it hadn’t been for Spzilman’s lack of hatred in the movie. Some might call him a wimp for his inability to fight the Germans, but it’s his refusal to sink to the level of mindless fighter that leads to his salvation.