There is a controversial debate regarding the film The Pianist (2002) directed by Roman Polanski on whether it is a truthful representation of the Holocaust which involved systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution of six million Jews (Introduction to the Holocaust). In particular, there are many views that the film was not focused on the Holocaust event itself, but rather primarily intended to convey the power of art and the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Specifically, Polanski used devastating, chaotic conditions of the Holocaust and the beauty of music which moved the German officer’s heart as two contrasting aspects to emphasize the power of art in society.
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In other words, Holocaust was one of the minor focus in the film as it was simply utilized as a background to magnify how aesthetics “ in this case, music “ is strongly influential even in that kind of threatening period. It is obvious that art is one of the main points Polanski wanted to discuss through the film as its title is even called The Pianist; the significance of music as a theme of this movie cannot be dismissed. However, the incident of the Holocaust also should not be dismissed as well because directorial choices and details of the film such as sound effect and design of the shelter meticulously displayed all the depressing situations in which Jews experienced during the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not concealed under aesthetics but was rather truthfully represented in the film; Polanski equally highlighted both music and the Holocaust, not heavily focusing one over the other.
First and foremost, many details directed by Polanski in the film expertly picture the life and emotions of Jews hiding from the Germans, which implies that Polanski took a lot of effort in portraying what the Holocaust would have been like in the perspective of Jewish people. For example, in the scenes when Szpilman lived in an apartment where he was locked inside with the assistance from a married couple, there were two major directorial choices that allowed the film to show specifically what the life of Jews hiding from the Germans would have been. Firstly, the usage of various sound effects in these particular scenes built up the tension of the film. For example, the car engine sound and the sound of car doors being slammed and Germans speaking German arouse the feeling of nervousness right away because if Szpilman gets caught, it will lead to very negative consequences. Then, the tension builds up more as Szpilman hears Germans climbing up the stairs and knocking hardly on the doors near where he is living. Such sound effects produced as the scene progresses make even the audience feel nervous, which conveys the feelings of Jewish people had during the Holocaust more effectively because they are experiencing similar emotions. Through this choice, Polanski was able to portray the situation in which Jewish people had to feel fear in every moment of their lives. Additionally, sound effects in these scenes enabled Polanski to highlight how Holocaust negatively affected Szpilman’s life. Before the Holocaust, beautiful sound of music was present in Szpliman’s life as a pianist, showing one of the brightest times in his life. However, as the film moved on to the Holocaust, sound such as bombing and gunshot took over his life and continuously tortured him; this directly showed that everything before the Holocaust was taken away from him. As a result, his life has fallen off to the darkest time in his life. Happiness he used to have was not visible anymore. The time when he pretended playing piano was only when such sound was blocked, giving him comfort. Due to these contrasting sounds in his life, the negative effects of the incident on him were strongly emphasized and more conspicuous. In fact, they were especially magnified because his occupation was a musician “ a job that involves sensitive hearing. Sound effects therefore played a great role in sketching the Holocaust in this film, representing very well in terms of how the Jews were affected in every aspect of their lives.
The second directorial choice that contributed to highlighting the Holocaust in these scenes was the presence of windows in the shelter. Even though he was physically isolated from outside, he could literally see what was going on outside through the windows every day. In other words, the apartment where he was hiding could have provided a shelter for him, but Szpilman was actually not separated, at least mentally, from the outside world, where Jewish people are ruthlessly beaten and killed by the Germans. It was visible in the film that Spzilman always had to remain in alert as he kept checking through the windows if something risky that could possibly affect him was happening outside. This implied the fact that Jewish people were never able to avoid the reality. The directorial choice of including the windows to the setting made the windows picture Jewish people who were always in danger hiding from the Germans. Szpilman might have had stayed in the place where there are no windows. However, if that was the case, the director would not have been able to carefully express the nervousness Jewish people felt because then sight would have been completely blocked. The visual aid of bombing and people being shot, which Szpilman was able to see through the windows, clearly placed additional tension on the film and explained the life of Jewish people more directly. In conclusion, Polanski meticulously created the setting with such detail in order for the film to truthfully display the Holocaust.
However, there are several counterarguments refuting that there are many directorial choices making this film a very weak representation of the Holocaust. The first question usually brought up in the discussion is the reason why Polanski chose the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman to portray the incident. This is often challenged because Szpilman did not experience the concentration camps, the most common material that pops up into people’s minds when the word Holocaust is given. People point out that if Polanski intended to picture the real Holocaust in the film, he would have chosen a different person’s life which involves the time in the concentration camps, making the film more provocative and a more truthful representation of the incident. However, because Szpilman’s life was very different compared to other Jewish people, Polanski was able to show a different aspect “ Jews hiding “ of the event. What Jewish people underwent in the concentration camps is well known by the public at this point. If The Pianist showed the concentration camps just like other Holocaust movies, it would have been very banal. The film was therefore a very unique approach. In fact, hiding life shown in the film was not very different. Just like other Jews, Szpilman was separated from his family. He was always under target, so there was always risk for death. At times, his life was even tougher than those in the concentration camps as he had to keep running away from the Germans whenever he judged that staying is not safe anymore. In addition, he often didn’t have any food to eat. This implies that situations of Jews outside the concentration camp were quite similar to those forced to stay in the camps. This unique choice conveyed the fact that regardless of the situations Jewish people were in, they suffered equally under the Germans, ultimately directing the audience to think about the same Holocaust in a different perspective. In fact, the film itself was provocative enough as it showed various scenes picturing the cruelty of Germans. For instance, there was one scene when the Germans threw an elder sitting on his wheelchair off a balcony to his death. There was another scene when one German soldier shot a woman as soon as she asked where she is being taken to. Besides these scenes, dead bodies being piled up and burned on the streets, massive revenge executed whenever the Jewish people rebel against the Germans, constant beating and all kinds of mistreatment successfully showed the real brutality of Germans during the Holocaust. In other words, the film was provocative enough without the concentration camps, again emphasizing that people who did not go through the concentration camps similarly experienced harsh life. It was therefore not too different.
Another point often made following the previous challenge is the ending of the film. First, Szpilman miraculously survived from the Holocaust. Second, it is natural that one suffers from the traumatizing event afterwards, but Szpilman was displayed as a very healthy person, who seemed to have completely recovered from the incident right away; he even played piano just like he previously did. People point out that this kind of happy ending is unusual. However, not everyone dies from the event. Szpilman was just one of the people who survived. Similarly, in the novel The Complete Maus written by Art Spiegelman, in which the author writes about his father’s experience in the Holocaust, the father luckily survived from the Holocaust too. Even the scene when Szpilman was suspected as German (because he was wearing a German coat) after the end of the war showed group of other people who survived, so it was not extremely unusual. Moreover, this does not make any difference because survivors are equally the victims of the Holocaust and part of the incident. Regarding the second point, Szpilman’s life afterwards is when the power of music that director wants to point out emerges. It is music that comforted Szpilman and enabled him to live a normal life after the war because he got music back in his life. Thus, the movie wraps up with scenes of him playing the piano to show this; because Polanski wanted to highlight both art and the incident, he structured the ending in this way. This kind of unusual ending does not weaken the Holocaust part of the film at all because main part of the Holocaust is what happened during the Holocaust, not that after the Holocaust; it is already depicted carefully in the previous scenes. In conclusion, although the film deals with aspects of the Holocaust unfamiliar to the audience, they do not make this film a false representation.
Moreover, other counterarguments point out that although Polanski attempted to portray the Holocaust in detail, relatively heavy focus on music consequently weakened the film’s direct representation of the incident. With respect to this, people primarily argue that music was what drove the German officer named Hosenfeld to save Szpilman when he found him trying to open a can in an abandoned building and continue to provide him supplies afterwards until the end of the war. However, the history specifically reported that Hosenfeld saw how the Nazis dealt with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and around this time decided to make a difference, helping to shelter and save several persecuted individuals (Admin, M.). To recognize and honor his kindness, Yad Vashem, Israel’s largest memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, presented members of his family with a medal in tribute for the actions he took in Warsaw (Officer Who Saved ‘The Pianist’ Honored). Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev stated that he exercised a very very human kind of behavior. Like this, the historical record points out that the German officer saved lives of Jews other than Szpilman. In other words, it was not music that specifically caused him not to kill him. Even the film depicts the kindness of Hosenfeld. If he were just a normal German under Hitler, he would have just killed Szpilman as soon as he saw him; however, he didn’t. He started talking to him and showed interest in him. His eyes even seemed like he did not have any threatening intention to kill him from the beginning. Thus, it is quite difficult to connect music to this matter.
There are also claims that music was definitely a motivation for him to survive, which made the focus of this film shifted to music rather than the incident. However, Polanski rather depicted music as a source of comfort for Szpilman. Music took over whenever piano was spotted and literally provided him a time of isolation from the Holocaust. If music was a motivation for him to live, music would have appeared in the film more frequently. In fact, scenes related to the Holocaust appeared more often, which implies that Polanski did not heavily focus on music. To explain, music only appeared in the film whenever piano was present. Even when he pretended playing piano, there was piano with him. In other words, without piano, music was not expressed in his life at all. However, he even sold his piano for his survival, which lessened the amount of screenplays related to music. This shows that living was the priority in his life, not accompanying music by keeping the piano with him. Even without piano, if Polanski wanted to put stronger emphasis on music, he would have included additional scenes such as Szpilman’s recount on music stopping his consideration of death. However, not a single scene even displayed him thinking of death, so it is unreasonable to argue that music motivated him to survive. Moreover, the fact that no one wants to die is notable as living is one of human being’s common desires. In the film, Szpilman showed human-like responses to any potential danger that could possibly kill him. He just did not want to die. Thus, music did not contribute to his actions that much. Like this, although music indeed played one of the major roles in the film, it was, in fact, not as heavily concentrated as usually evaluated by the audience.
Due to awe of music pictured in the film with professional piano playing, it is very easy to miss or even forget about the Holocaust described in the film. However, if we pay closer attention, we can clearly see how Polanski meticulously directed the film in a way that music does not stand out too much, balancing the significance of both music and the Holocaust. Although the Holocaust was displayed differently from most Holocaust films due to the interesting life of Szpilman, it undoubtedly represents the same incident by including provocative scenes of cruelty of the Germans. On top of that, counterarguments pointing out strong emphasis on music hindering truthful depiction of the Holocaust are masterfully weakened by Polanski’s choices regarding Hosenfeld’s actions and the role of music in Szpilman’s Holocaust experience. This also does not necessarily mean that the theme of music was undermined. Overall, within the same representation, The Pianist allowed us to extend our view of the Holocaust to hiding life of Jewish people during the incident through Szpilman’s life and consider the value of aesthetics in our society at the same time.
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