Polanski’s The Pianist (2002)

Of all the Holocaust movies I have seen so far The Pianist is my favourite. It doesn’t concentrate on life in the camps but, based on a true account, it depicts the survival story of a famous Polish Jewish pianist and focuses on life in the Warsaw ghetto.

The movie begins before the Jews of Warsaw are sent to the ghetto. The situation for them gets worse daily. They are forbidden to enter certain restaurants, to sit on park benches, to keep their money or their shops. They receive far less food than the other Poles. They already struggle hard before they are all compressed into a confined area in the Warsaw ghetto. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) who was a successful musician before the war, sees himself degraded, like so many others. Together with his parents, his brother and sisters they move from their nice roomy apartment into an old shabby one-bedroom place in the ghetto. To make a living they sell their books or smuggle stuff. They refuse to join the Polish police even though one of their friends has joined them and would help them to be accepted as well. Both brothers are of high moral integrity and nothing would make them betray their convictions.

When the day arrives and the people of the ghetto are sent to Treblinka, Wladyslaw escapes and remains on his own in the empty ghetto. If it wasn’t for the help of some courageous Poles he would be dead within a week or two. Either because they would have caught him or because he would have starved.

What follows until the end of the war is an unspeakable ordeal. He has to change his hiding place often, he watches the uprising from a window on the German side and when Warsaw is finally bombed he goes on living in the ruins until the day he is found by a German officer. This part is the best in the movie. It balances the image of the evil German. The officer Wladyslaw meets (played by Thomas Kretschmann) is not only fond of music but war-weary to the extreme. He clearly fought for a cause he didn’t believe in.

Another tragic element in this movie is how hope is crushed. When the Allies declare war on Germany, the Poles and Polish Jews are happy and think that the worst is over when in fact the worst was still to come.

I couldn’t think of a better choice for the pianist than Adrien Brody. He is excellent in this movie. If you haven’t seen The Pianist, I’d say it is high time.

Which Holocaust movies do you like?

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Katyn (2007) or The Crime and the Lie about a Gruesome Massacre on Polish Officers

This is an outstanding movie. Truly outstanding from every possible point of view. Narrative style, cinematography, actors, story, technical aspects. Absolutely great.

The Polish movie Katyn is about the massacre of some 22000 Polish officers by the Russian army and the subsequent  disposal of their bodies in the Katyn forest in 1940. Once the mass grave is found in 1943 the so-called Katyn list is established.  After having waited anxiously for the return of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers the families are now informed if or if not their loved ones have been among the victims. However not all the victims are on the list. Many more a still missing and may or may not have been murdered. Many wives still wait for their husbands in 1945.

The movie focuses on two families. One is the family of a Polish General, the other the family of a Polish officer. The story is told in two sequences. The first half tells the story until the massacre, the second tells the story of the lie and ends again with the massacre but this time shown much more explicitly (The way these murders were executed…How can people do this to people?). After the first half we think the story should be over but in reality it only just begins. Seeing it first from the point of view of the victims, we are then guided towards the point of view of the families who wait for them. Their ordeal is a different but very cruel one. Even though everybody knows who killed those officers, officially it is said to have been a massacre committed by the Germans. To say otherwise would be very dangerous. The political climate of the time that made it impossible to even mention a critical view of this incident until 1989 is palpable in all its atrocity.

On my DVD of this movie is an interview with the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. He tells the interviewer how difficult it was to make this movie. He didn´t know how to tell the story. Should he tell his father´s story, who had been among those officers, or his mother´s who was one of those who did not give up hope until 1945. He decided eventually to tell both stories, juxtapose them, have one mirror the other. This is very skillfully done. Wajda belongs to the so-called Polish Film School and has made many movies, two of his better known earlier ones also deal with WWII:  A Generation aka Pokolenie (1955) and Kanal (1957) about the Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

This film is truly the work of a master, of someone who does not just deliver a story but who weaves it carefully, adding symbolism and criticism alike. And  still it is highly watchable.