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.

Notes:

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.

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Read the first entry in the Hololcaust film project: Toyand

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

Holocaust Film #2: The Diary of Anne Frank

This article is the second 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 Diary of Anne Frank (1959) – True story

Director: George Stevens

Screenplay: Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett

Producer: George Stevens

In July 1942, in the thick of the Holocaust, 13-year-old Anne along with her family and their family friends, the Van Daans, took shelter in the attic of a spice factory in Amsterdam to prevent arrest by the Nazi forces. The whole film is set inside the attic with advertence about the outer world coming through the radio and their safe-keepers, Milep Gies and Mr. Kragler (original name: Victor Kugler), who intermittently alert the inhabitants regarding the cruelty that’s being constrained upon Jews.

Their world augurs sporadically in the form of news that acts as a harbinger of allied army forces. Their confidence and hope are broken more than once, but they move on without progressing.  The camera seldom moves outside the building the family is hiding in, often restricting the view through the broken windows, reminding us of their confinement.

A still from the film. Anne Frank (played by Millie Perkins) in the center.

Anne shortly starts penning her thoughts – which would later transmute into philosophical proverbs – in a diary her father, Otto Frank, gifts her. The film takes a few liberties to make it fit the cinematic medium. Two of the most notable differences between real life and the film pertaining to the diary include:

  1. Anne received the diary on June 12, 1942, her 13th birthday, a month before she went into hiding, whereas in the film, she is presented the diary after they arrive at the safe house.
  2. From 21st September, 1942, she started addressing her writings as letters to Kitty, a fictional character from a series of books by Dutch author Cissy van Marxveldt which Anne had read in her initial days of hiding.

Regardless of these changes, the ruminations that emanate from her experiences remain unblemished. However, the fact that Anne addressed Kitty, referring to her as a companion, alludes to how lonely she was despite being surrounded by people in cramping physical proximity. The physical isolation and mental remoteness, coupled with a monstrous threat a few steps away from her life, snowball into contemplations which find catharsis in the form of words in her diary.

On the cinematic front, The Diary of Anne Frank subverts the idea of terror usually associated with Holocaust films, steering clear of death, violence, and blood. Instead, it banks on our understanding of the Holocaust to gauge the menace facing her life. The consistent dread emerges from the plight of these people, who are bound to danger any moment. A hint of their presence -a footstep or a minute thrum – is a threat, and they have to cleave to their distressed non-existence in order to subsist.

A still from the film

Adding to the burden, Anne grapples with people – her mother, especially – but she never frets. Anne is informed that her friends went to school and never returned, how people are disappearing in masses, and how the situation on the outside is worsening with each passing day. However, Anne gleams in the darkness. The film serves both as a detailed character study and broad depiction of loathing the Jews were subjected to through the Holocaust, from the perspective of an innocent young girl. 

The film ends with the capture of Anne and her family by the Nazi police. Although her journey ends along with millions who perished on the back of hate, Anne remains the embodiment of hope during the darkest of the times. On the outside, The Diary of Anne Frank starkly differs from other Holocaust films, but it has the soul of one – reflecting the ubiquitous human detest.

Perhaps, the greatest achievement of The Diary of Anne Frank is the way it immaculately enacapsulates the fear and terrors of the Holocaust, while seamlessly confering hope in the world during its nadir on the moral front.

The fine balance in commentary between broad concepts such as hate and empathy with personal conflicts like loneliness and coming-of-age perils give this film the potential to create a paradigm shift in one’s beliefs regarding life. One simple example- if a 13-year-old girl, who is hiding with her family – surrounded by death amid human massacre of unprecedented proportions – can look at life optimistically, what’s stopping you? 

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Learn about the life of Anne Frank here.

Read the first entry in the Hololcaust film project: Toyand

Holocaust Film #1: Toyland

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

Director: Jochen Alexander Freydank

Screenplay: Johann A. Bunners & Jochen Alexander Freydank

Producer: Jochen Alexander Freydank Music: Ingo Ludwig Frenzel

It’s only fitting that Toyland is the film to start the conversation about the Holocaust. The film marks the beginning of a gargantuan tragedy, but the tragedy is not in sight because the people knew little about what awaited them after they board the train to a concentration camp. In the film, the genesis of the genocide is buried under a child’s innocence, while a mother’s kindness gives hope in a world that’s soon to dissent into savagery. 

The title Toyland has dual connotations. One – extermination camps; two- a child’s immaculateness. Set in Nazi Germany, Heinrich Meißner and David Silberstein – an Aryan and a Jew, respectively – are neighbors, best friends, and take piano lessons together. With jews being deported to concentration camps, the fate of the Silberstein family is evident. On this premise, Heinrich’s mother, Marianne, tells her son that his friend, David, and his family are shifting to a new place called Toyland. Heinrich buys the story, owing to his innocence. All of this occurs off-screen and the film begins with Marianne finding her son missing the morning David and his family are deported. She suspects that her son may have joined his best friend, since he believes they are going to Toyland, and promptly starts searching for him.

The very first shot of the film, a close up of a piano – focusing on the linear, horizontal pattern of the keys as two kids play a tune – intercuts to a toy train track. This is the film’s most important shot, considering how it uses piano and train as metaphors for coexistence and hatred, respectively. It’s to be noted how piano – made of both black and white keys – is used to represent unity and solidarity, while railway tracks, which stand for uniformity, are used to represent revulsion rising from the difference.

Source: Magnet Film, Youtube

Toyland talks about the importance of indifference and co-existence, without uttering a word. To Heinrich, it makes no difference whether his friend is an Aryan or a Jew. So does his mother. In the nick of time, Marianne arrives at the railway station to prevent her son from being mistakenly deported, but she realizes Heinrich is not present on the train. It is revealed in a flashback that Heinrich tried to join his friend but was restrained from doing so by a German officer. Using the moment, she instead claims David is Heinrich and saves him from being deported and the impending death. Marianne raises David along with her son and both the friends – again, an Aryan and Jew – grow old together. All attributed to the innocence of the child and the kindness of the mother.

Had Heinrich not believed the story of Toyland, he wouldn’t have tried to join his friend, subsequently not alarming his mother, which in turn, would have meant the deportation and death of David, along with millions of others. It’s a story of how the naivety of a kid saved a life. Towards the end, the piano makes a reappearance showing two older men, David and Heinrich, playing a tune, perfectly in synchronization with each other, proving that kindness and compassion pave the way to coexistence.

Source: Magnet Film, Youtube

Watch Toyland here: