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Film / The Pianist

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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.

The Pianist is a 2002 film directed by Roman Polański, starring Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann.

It was adapted from the memoirs of Władysław Szpilman. Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is an accomplished concert pianist with a thriving career in Warsaw, Poland in 1939. He still lives with his family, consisting of his mother and father, his brother Henryk, and his sisters Halina and Regina. They are Jewish—assimilated, Polish-speaking Jews, as opposed to the Yiddish-speaking Jews that constitute most of Polish Jewry.

On September 1, 1939, World War II begins with the German attack on Poland. Within a month, the badly outnumbered and outgunned Poles are defeated by the Nazis. Life is worse for everyone but it is particularly terrible for the Jews of Poland, as the Nazis immediately institute a raft of anti-Jewish laws and begin mercilessly persecuting them. Things get worse and worse, as the Jews of Warsaw are crammed into a tiny ghetto and cut off from the rest of the world, and used as slave labor. They begin to starve. Finally the day comes when the Szpilmans are rounded up and put on cattle cars bound for the death camp of Treblinka. However, Szpilman is taken out of the line for the train at the last second by a Jewish ghetto policeman. Three more years of struggle lie ahead for Szpilman as he hides in Warsaw, struggling to survive, helped by his pre-war Gentile friend Dorota (Emilia Fox), and, later, by German officer Wilm Hosenfeld (Kretschmann).

Not to be confused with The Piano Teacher, which has a similar title in French (La Pianiste).

This film features examples of:

  • Abandoned Hospital: Szpilman takes refuge in one for a little while as the Germans complete the destruction of Warsaw.
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Subverted with Wilm Hosenfeld who, despite being a captain of the German army, helped main character Szpilman escape from death and regularly gave him food. The Real Life Wilm Hosenfeld also fits into the subversion, having helped hide and rescue many Jews. Hosenfeld technically was a Nazi (he had joined the Party in 1935) but grew disgusted with them.
    • It's worth mentioning that all German Officers were required to be members of the Nazi party, regardless of their beliefs.
  • 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 officer in a combat unit; 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".
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: The entire point of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which plays in the background in the middle of the film.
  • 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.
  • Crazy Homeless People: The old Jew in the ghetto, who is either a genuine case or just pretends to keep up the mood of children around him. He's amusing enough to get a free cigarette from the German soldiers.
  • Creator Cameo: That's Polański complaining about a Gentile street running through the Jewish ghetto.
  • Death of a Child: When you see the corpses of children that had been shot...
  • 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.
  • Destination Defenestration: A squad of German soldiers raids a house in the Ghetto. A hapless old Jewish man in a wheelchair who's living there is thrown off the house's balcony to his death after the squad's officer absurdly ordered him to stand up (which he obviously can't do), with his family watching and screaming and the Szpilman family watching in terror from the other side of the street.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: Accidentally, and at the worst possible time. Szpilman receives a coat from Hosenfeld, which causes the Polish 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.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Most of pivotal elements of the story, like German victory within a month, fate of Jews in the ghetto, both uprisings (and their fate) and of course the conclusion for both Szpilman and Hosenfeld are historical facts. That doesn't make the story any less dramatic.
  • 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.
    • Let's not forget about the two bankers testing gold coins on marble table, while already being in the ghetto and acting as if it was business as always.
  • Hate Sink: The woman who nearly exposes Szpilman. She's given no characterization, other than being a despiscable bigot who tries to have a weak and starved man arrested out of pure spite.
  • 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. He was then captured by the Russians and probably died from torture in 1952.
  • 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.
    • Which might be a Shout-Out to a Polish film Cwał, where a large piece of platinum was hidden this way.
  • Hope Spot: Truthfully for citizens of Poland at the time, Szpilman family is overjoyed when hearing in the radio that both Britain and France have declared war on Germany in response to their invasion. While at dinner, they even make a toast "to England and to France", obviously convinced that Poland is no longer fighting this war alone. However, if you did your homework, you are probably aware that no help from the West is going to arrive, since in real world history, neither Britain nor France did anything to aid their Polish allies in 1939.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Right when the Warsaw Uprising starts, an unseen Polish fighter manages to shoot a long burst out of a machine pistol, mowing down all German soldiers nearby without hitting two nurses standing between them.
  • Jerkass: Władysław's brother Henryk is rude, sarcastic, tries to joke in situations which are hardly funny (for example, he tells a story of a Jewish doctor and his patient who were murdered by the Germans in the middle of an operation and laughs at it because, hey, the patient was already sedated so he didn't feel a thing) and spends most of his screentime mocking and antagonizing others for no reason. This is probably his way of coping with stress stemming from Szpilman family's (and Jews in general) current situation, but it still makes him come off as an obnoxious asshole.
  • Kick the Dog: Used extensively by the Nazis. Which, unfortunately, was very much Truth in Television.
    • Brought to new extremes when a Nazi lines up workers on their faces and shoots them all in the head, even reloading to shoot the last remaining man 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.
  • 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. Although interestingly some of the more brutal members of the police are known to have survived the war. Many were charged with war crimes and treason by the Polish state.
  • Lonely Piano Piece: Evoked in-story when Szpilman plays Chopin's "Ballade in G minor" for Hosenfeld.
  • Madness Mantra: "Why did I do it? Why did I do it? Why did I do it? WHY DID I DO IT?"
  • Meaningful Name: See Bilingual Bonus above.
  • Men Don't Cry: Averted hard. Szpilman's father cries after seeing the wheelchaired man tossed from the balcony and the man's family is mercilessly gunned down. Szpilman cries when his whole family is deported to their deaths.
  • Mood Lighting: Many of the scenes (such as those in the ghetto and in Szpilman's apartment near the German hospital) are tinted blue. Final scenes of the war are desaturated instead, to invoke the cold temperature.
  • Mundane Luxury: After surviving years of hunger, persecution, and near-death, Szpilman is ecstatic when Hosenfeld presents him with jam.
  • 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.
    • Seeing the German tank take its sweet time to line up a shot at the building Szpilman is trapped in. He can only watch helplessly.
    • 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.
  • Pet the Dog: In one of very few heartwarming (thought still somewhat grotesque) moments in this movie, we see an old Jew entertaining a group of kids and pretending that he's shooting at two German soldiers, using his cane as an imaginary rifle. Surprisingly, the Germans do not harm him, laugh heartily at his antics and even spare him a cigarette.
  • The Piano Player: Well, yeah. Although he's a classical concert pianist, once the Nazis move in Szpilman is reduced to playing cheap gigs in bars and restaurants, since they didn't allow Jews to be in the arts. (Then things go From Bad to Worse and he isn't able to touch a piano at all.) 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.
  • Playing Possum: During the razing of Warsaw, Szpilman finds himself with nowhere to hide when he hears a squad of Germans approaching. He lies down on the pavement and doesn't move so they will assume he is one of the many civilian corpses littering the streets, with success.
  • 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.
  • Punctuated Pounding: After Szpilman — while doing slave labor at the construction site — accidentally drops some bricks from the scaffolding, one of German guards beats him with a whip, shouting "Hunds!" ("dogs!") with each lash.
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: Unless Szpilman hears or plays an instrument there is no music.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Discussed. The Szpilman family argue about where to hide their money from the Germans. Henryk suggest putting the money under a newspaper on a table in front of the Germans, thinking they would never look somewhere so obvious.
  • La Résistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. And then the later Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
  • Shout Out To Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, which deals, of course, with Christians persecuting Jews.
  • State Sec: The SS, obviously.
  • Slice of Life: The first quarter is mostly just about Szpilman and his family trying to live a normal life in Warsaw.
  • Survivorship Bias: Deconstructed. Szpilman has to live with knowing how many people (including his family) are dying thanks to the Nazis. The film is about his attempts to stay sane because of it.
  • 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.
  • A Taste of the Lash: One particular SS officer that Szpilman runs into in the ghetto is particularly fond of whipping the slave laborers under his supervision. At one point, he beats a row of workers simply to celebrate New Year's Eve.
  • 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. Polański 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 Polański.
  • Unwanted Rescue: Szpilman is rescued from joining the rest of his family on the carriage to their deaths on the sympathetic whim of a Jewish Ghetto police leader. This was the same man whose ego Szpilman had stroked in an earlier scene.
  • 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.
  • Would Harm a Senior: The SS officers, who drop a wheelchair-bound Jewish grandfather from a balcony just to be pointlessly cruel.
  • Where Are They Now: At the end of the film, the viewer is told what ultimately happens to Szpilman and Hosenfeld.
  • While Rome Burns: Even after the Nazis have occupied Warsaw, forced all the Jews in the city into a ghetto area and begun the process of the Final Solution, the wealthy Jewish bankers carry on as though it were business as usual, right until the very end.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Discussed by the three old men in Umschlagplatz before they are herded off to the cattle cars to Treblinka.