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Film: The Pianist

Władysław Szpilman: I don't know how to thank you.
Captain Wilm Hosenfeld: Thank God, not me. He wants us to survive. Well, that's what we have to believe.

Adapted from the memoirs of Władysław Szpilman, the 2002 film The Pianist was directed by Roman Polanski and starred Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann. Both star and director won Oscars (with Brody being the youngest ever Best Actor winner at age 29), as did screenwriter Ronald Harwood. Basically, the film follows Szpilman's struggles in Nazi-occupied Poland as hell breaks loose around him. As his family is deported to the German Death camps, Szpilman himself must find it in him to survive.

Not to be confused with The Piano or The Piano Teacher.

This film features examples of:

  • Abandoned Hospital: Szpilman takes refuge in one for a little while as the Germans complete the destruction of Warsaw.
  • Academy Award: It won 3 of them: Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • Audible Sharpness: Heard when an SS officer yanks a bayonet out of a scabbard to slice open a sack of grain.
  • Based on a True Story: A highly faithful adaptation of Szpilman's memoir, down to quotes and small details, like the woman who is shot in the back and falls down and dies in an odd kneeling position.
    • Subverted somewhat in the character of Hosenfeld. Although the graphic at the end correctly identifies him as a captain, in the film he appears to be a senior combat officer; the men in headquarters stand at attention when he enters and he signs written orders. The real Hosenfeld was in fact only a captain, and served as a "sports and culture officer".
  • Bilingual Bonus: While most of the spoken German has subtitles, there's a lot of information that you can pick up from the dialogue that isn't translated.
    • The Nazis address Jews by the familiar you "du", an insult in German when addressing strangers. (This is most notable in a couple of scenes where Nazis are picking Jews out of a line: "du!...du!...du!".) When the Good German, Capt. Hosenfeld, speaks to Szpilman he addresses him with the respectful formal "you", "Sie".
    • Towards the end, Szpilman tells Hosenfeld his name, and Hosenfeld says it's "a good name for a pianist". The Polish name "Szpilman" is pronounced almost exactly the same as the German word "spielmann", meaning a minstrel/entertainer.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Szpilman survives and resumes his career as a pianist. But his whole family was gassed in Treblinka. And as a further kick in the teeth, Wilm Hosenfeld, the soldier who helped him survive the last few weeks of the war, died in a Soviet prison camp.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with Szpilman playing piano.
  • Creator Cameo: That's Polanski complaining about a Gentile street running through the Jewish ghetto.
  • Description Cut: A dark example of what is usually a humorous trope. The family hears the declaration that Britain and France have declared war against Germany. They toast, and Father says "All will be well". Cut to a shot of the Wehrmacht marching through Warsaw as Father, Władysław and Henryk look on in dismay.
  • Desolation Shot: The Warsaw ghetto, post-uprising.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: Accidentally, and at the worst possible time. Szpilman receives a coat from Hosenfeld, which causes the Russian soldiers arriving later to mistake him for German. Szpilman barely escapes being shot.
    Szpilman: Stop! I'm Polish!
    Polish Soldier: He is Polish! ...Why the fucking coat?
    Szpilman: I'm cold.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: If it can even be called that.
  • Feet-First Introduction: How Capt. Hosenfeld makes his appearance after Szpilman's can of cucumbers rolls to his feet.
  • From Bad to Worse: Once the Nazis arrive, things get progressively worse for just about everybody.
  • Go-Karting with Bowser: Early in the film, a Jewish entertainer amuses two Nazi officers and manages to bum a cigarette off them. And then there's Hosenfeld, at the end.
  • Greedy Jew: Alluded to in-universe by an SS officer who enlists the Jews in a black market scheme.
  • Hero of Another Story: Wilm Hosenfeld's kindness towards Szpilman was not a whim. At great personal risk, he had been using his position to save numerous Jews and Poles from death as far back as September 1939.
  • Hey, You!: See Bilingual Bonus above.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Szpilman's brother suggests doing this with the family bankroll to keep it from the Nazis. The rest of the family instantly dismisses this as a crazy idea.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted when you see the corpses of children that had been shot.
  • Kick the Dog: Used extensively by the Nazis.
    • Brought to new extremes when a Nazi lines up workers on their faces and shoots them all in the head, even reloading when his magazine runs out. No reason beyond amusement can be understood for this. Other actions include beating up an old man for not saluting and for walking on the pavement.
    • Possibly the most shocking of these moments (also a Real Life instance), is when Nazis enter a Jewish house and demand the family stand to attention. An old Jew who is wheelchair-bound cannot, so the Nazis throw him off a balcony. The sheer pointless callousness of this action is astounding.
  • La Résistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. And then the later Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
  • Les Collaborateurs: The Jewish ghetto police. Szpilman's brother scornfully refuses to join them; one saves Szpilman's life later. In Real Life they were eventually gassed along with the rest of the ghetto.
  • Lonely Piano Piece: Evoked in-story when Szpilman plays Chopin's "Ballade in G minor" for Hosenfeld.
  • Madness Mantra / Broken Record: Why did I do it? Why did I do it? Why did I do it? WHY DID I DO IT?
    • Most Annoying Sound: Invoked; her whining gets on Helena's nerves, before she realizes just why she's been repeating that. The woman had tried to hide her baby from the Germans, but in doing so smothered it and subsequently killed her own baby. The Germans heard the death rattle, and they were found.
  • Meaningful Name: See Bilingual Bonus above.
  • Mood Lighting: Many of the scenes (such as those in the ghetto and in Szpilman's apartment near the German hospital) are tinted blue.
  • Nazi Germany: Obviously. Just about every Nazi in the movie is a bastard, no surprises there, except for Hosenfeld, who was a good man both in the movie and IRL (he felt ashamed at his country's actions, and in Warsaw, he used his position to refuge people, and made an effort to learn Polish so he could converse with those he befriended).
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: Happens with almost all of Szpilman's family, save for his sister, to whom he says moments before being separated:
    "I wish I knew you better."
  • Oh, Crap: The look on Szpilman's face when he meets Hosenfeld.
    • Also, when poor Szpilman is trying to get an object off the top shelf in one of his better homes, the shelves collapse and all the plates break, leading a neighbor to find out he's hiding there. The look on his face is simultaneously a Tearjerker.
  • Oscar Bait: But still well regarded despite this. Art Spiegelman who has been critical of "Holokitsch" films, praised The Pianist as admirable.
  • The Piano Player: Well, yeah. Although he's a classical concert pianist, once the Nazis move in Szpilman must take cheap gigs in restaurants. (Until it gets worse.) A rare instance of the trope being Played for Drama.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Szpilman manages to survive the Holocaust only through the goodness of strangers and sheer dumb luck. Of course, this is totally justified considering it's based on a true story, and the real Szpilman's real experiences.
  • Plummet Perspective: During the aftermath of the Polish uprising, when Szpilman is shot at by Nazis and ends up dangling from a rooftop, slate falling to the streets far below him.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: A closeup of a headshot is seen midway through the film. The victim gains a tiny hole on their cranium, out which there flows a little trickle of blood. Granted, this isn't too far off from a real Mauser pistol; their entrance wounds are pretty small, and the film doesn't show the exit wounds.
  • Shout Out To Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, which deals, of course, with Christians persecuting Jews.
  • Slice of Life: The first quarter is mostly just about Szpilman and his family trying to live a normal life in Warsaw.
  • Talent Double: Polish pianist Janusz Olejniczak, who also performed much of the soundtrack, appears as Adrien Brody's piano-playing hands.
    • It's worth noting that Adrien Brody studied piano for the role and actually learned to play the pieces Szpilman performs on-screen, though the playing you hear on the final soundtrack is Olejniczak's.
  • Translation Convention:
    • Used with all the Polish characters, but averted with the Germans, who speak German.
    • The one German line in the entire film that is subject to the Translation Convention is "Well, off they go to the melting pot", spoken by a German guard as the train pulls away from the Umschlagplatz. This is probably to make sure the audience understands that Szpilman's family is going to their deaths. (Those trains went to Treblinka, where all aboard were gassed upon arrival.)
  • Truth in Television: Sadly enough. Polanski supplemented Szpilman's memoirs with some details from his own experience as a Holocaust survivor. (The moment where Szpilman is stumbling away from the Treblinka train and the Jewish policeman says "Don't run!" was something that happened to Polanski.)
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The movie doesn't quite make it clear what happened to Szpilman's family after they were deported, though the audience would know that their chances weren't good. In Real Life, Szpilman's entire family died almost immediately in Treblinka (as was true of almost every Warsaw Jew who was deported from the ghetto).
    • Andrzej Bogucki and his wife Janina, who helped Szpilman hide in the "Aryan" side of Warsaw, disappear after the Warsaw Uprising and are never mentioned again in the film. In real life they survived the war.
  • Where Are They Now: At the end of the film, the viewer is told what ultimately happens to Szpilman and Hosenfeld.
  • World War II
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Discussed by the three old men in Umschlagplatz before they are herded off to the cattle cars to Treblinka.

Knife In The WaterPolish MediaThe Saragossa Manuscript
Schindler's ListWorks Set in World War IIAmen
Panic RoomFilms of 2000 - 2004 Poolhall Junkies
The HoursAcademy AwardLost in Translation

alternative title(s): The Pianist
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