Holocaust Film #3: The Pianist

Third entry in The Holocaust Film Project.

Note: Should go without saying, but spoilers ahead. In all honesty, it doesn’t matter. Story over everything and the objective of the Holocaust project is to share stories.

Film: The Pianist (2002) – True story

Director: Roman Polanski

Screenplay: Ronald Harwood

Producer: Roman Polanski, Robert Benmussa, and Alain Sarde

In a sequence in The Pianist, the German police raid the Warsaw ghetto – a housing colony/district built to the forecefuly confine Jews – at dinner time, randomly and crudely entering houses. The purpose of the raid feels no more than purposeless tormentation of innocent people. As they enter a home, a family is seated around the dining table, and they are expected to stand up as a mark of respect. When a wheelchair-bound elder fails to do so due to his visible, physical ailment, he is thrown out the building from a virulent height. In a similar barbaric fashion, many are killed on the empty road of the ghetto that night. While leaving, the tiers of their vehicles crush another man who was gradually, painfully, and evidently succumbing to the gunshot.

The climax of the sequence is a high-angle shot and there are two reasons why. Firstly, Władysław Szpilman, a pianist, and his family are on a high-rise floor witnessing the cruelty underneath. Secondly, it can also be perceived as the view of the God, who remains a mute witness. Whilst the film is not essentially about the silence of God – although every Holocaust-based film can be interpreted as one – there are numerous instances in which ‘luck’ or ‘coincidence’ favours Władysław during his struggles to emerge alive through the war in Nazi-occupied Poland throughout the film.

The preparators are haphazard and cruel, using murder as a tool. The murders are not systemic decimations. Jewish people are randomly chosen and killed.

The victims are unprotected, unequipped, and powerless. Allies are far. Hope is farther. All they can wish for is to not be picked out for assassination.

A scene depicting a random execution.

As per the statistics,

At a point, the Warsaw ghetto housed 460,00 imprisoned Jews. From there, the prisoners were transported to Nazi deaths camps, where they’d be exterminated in masses using gas or bullets. In the summer of 1942, a minimum of 254,000 Ghetto residents were estimated to have been sent to the Treblinka extermination camp, one of the largest mass killing centers to ever exist on earth.

According to Robert Moses Shapiro’s book, Holocaust chronicles: individualizing the Holocaust through diaries and other contemporaneous personal accounts, least 300,000 from the Warsaw ghetto were by bullet or gas including 92,000 victims of starvation and related diseases, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the casualties of the final destruction of the Ghetto

Two shots from the film – before and after deportation – represent the lives of humans vanishing.

Ascribed to a help that he didn’t seek, Władysław is pulled out of the crowd being deported to a death camp, literally and figuratively. Estranged from his family, meandering alone in a landscape where death wafts whirls every corner, the pianist has to now undergo an ever-threatening period of survival, enduring hunger, diseases, and basic human requirements. At a point, he even has to face extremely cold temperatures. It feels like every facet of the world is against him, and people are only a part of it.

For Władysław, though, people are saviours. Non-jewish people – the supposedly evil kind – help him with food and shelter, ensuring his protection to an extent while he barely subsists. After losing his shelter during the Warsaw uprising, Władysław seeks shelter in the ruins of a bombed aisle, where he is found by Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, a German Army officer. Hosenfeld keeps Władysław’s presence discrete, providing him food from time to time.

Ruination of war

At the end, years of Władysław’s survival come to fruition, when the Red Army arrives at the gates of Warsaw. Hosenfeld, a Nazi, is taken prisoner by the Red Army. The ending of the film takes a stark turn, with Hosenfeld’s imprisonment sidelining Władysław’s liberty.

When a liberated Władysław, now back to his dignified life, learns about Hosenfeld’s detention through a fellow musician, he goes to the camp where his the German officers were held. All he finds is a green, empty ground. The shot strikingly resembles a sequence from French-documentary Shoah, in which a survivor revisits the extermination camp after 50 years, only to find a serene land with no traces of horror that transpired.

People perish, objects disappear, but their stories live forever.


1. The day Warsaw uprising began – August 1, 1944 – is also the day Anne Frank made her last diary entry, three days before her capture.

2. It later came to be known that Wilm Hosenfeld protected many Polish jews, but with no concrete evidence, he was punished with 25 years of hard labor for war crimes.

3. In 1946, Hosenfeld wrote a letter to his wife, naming the Jews whom he had saved, requesting her to contact them and ask them to arrange his release, but he died in 1952 in Soviet Union capacity.

4. In 2008, Yad Vashem posthumously recognized Hosenfeld as Righteous Among the Nations, and in 2009, Israeli diplomats presented Hosenfeld’s son, Detlev, with the award.

5. Władysław Szpilman resumed his career post-war and died on July 6th, 2000, at 88.


Read the first entry in the Hololcaust film project: Toyand

Read the second entry in the Hololcaust film project: The Diary of Anne Frank

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