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The Pianist

Written by G. Lee Ramsey, Jr.

Directed by Roman Polanski
Focus Films, R rating

Many films explore the power of art to redeem human depravity, but none with any more force than The Pianist. It is a true story based upon the 1946 recorded memoirs of the gifted concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. A Polish Jew, Szpilman stares straight into the evil pit of the holocaust. Somehow, despite the brutal atrocities that he sees and experiences, the artist not only survives but retains the ability to create beauty through music.

This film garnered best acting award (Adrien Brody), best direction (Roman Polanski), and best adapted screenplay at the 2003 Academy Awards. Polanski knows this material all too well because his own family members were holocaust victims. But given the gravity of the subject, Hollywood honors seem trite even if deserved.

Don't even think about watching this movie unless you are prepared to take repeated spiritual and psychological blows. The movie chronicles the systematic violence that the WW II Nazi machine unleashes upon the 360,000 Jews of Warsaw. An accomplished musician, Szpilman moves from a quiet, aesthetically insulated confidence that the threat of the Nazis will pass to a frenzied and fortuitous ability to escape death.

He witnesses horror upon horror as evil marches through Warsaw's Jewish ghetto: German soldiers dump an elderly man in a wheelchair from a second-story window because he cannot rise to salute the soldiers; Szpilman watches his own family herded onto boxcars and shunted off to "extermination"; soldiers randomly shoot Jewish laborers at point blank range; a mother accidentally suffocates her own child while attempting to avoid detection—her inconsolable cries echo like the lament of biblical Rachel.

With the help of the Polish underground, Szpilman manages to survive as one of only thirty Jews left in Warsaw by the war's end. He is reduced, animal-like, to scrounging for food among the ruins of the ghetto. Polanski's re-creation of the bombed-out ghetto looks like the end of the world. Violence, hunger, and disease stalk Szpilman as the war rages on. Yet the musician manages to hang on to himself and his music. At one point, he hides in an apartment with a piano, but he cannot play for fear of being detected. The artist bends over the keyboard and pretends to play the piece in the air.

Ultimately, music is what saves Szpilman. In the movie's climactic scene, evil and redemption become manifest in the character of a German officer who holds Szpilman's life in his hands and the music that transforms him. Art awakens an awareness of beauty and compassion even in the persecutor's soul.

Surely evil cannot be any more vile than the face it showed during the holocaust. Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka stand as searing reminders of the depth of human corruption. As Elie Wiesel, another survivor of the holocaust, continually reminds us, such horror should never be forgotten. Any religion that cannot acknowledge such bitter fruits of human sin is not worth believing. For only if we admit the rank horror of evil can we hope for a God and a faith strong enough to redeem it. The Pianist projects evil's hideous visage upon the screens of our consciousness. But right in the face of unspeakable horror comes another face and another sound—the face of a surviving child of God, a chosen one, placing fingers upon a keyboard and creating life-sustaining, redemptive music among the ruins of civilization.

Art is not religion, at least not for Jewish and Christian believers. But artists, at their best, often serve the ends of faith—worship of the creating and redeeming God. This film begs us to reckon with the relationship between the two. The creativity of the artist can refract, however dimly, the colors and sounds of a far greater Creator, the One who lavishes beauty and order upon chaos. When the powers of hell threaten to crush human dignity, to scorch away all that is loving and decent among the human community, the artist—as long as there is breath and strength—becomes a witness to the eternal beauty that can rekindle compassion from the ashes of death.

It was one of the 20th century's greatest artists, William Faulkner, who said upon his acceptance of the Nobel prize that "The poet's voice need not merely be the record of [humanity], it can be one of the props, the pillars to help [humanity] endure and prevail." Art alone did not and will not prevent a holocaust, but when the ovens are turned off and the killing ceases, the artist begins again, in the spirit of God, to mend the brokenhearted remnant and compose the sights and sounds of a more compassionate world.

The Pianist, though based upon an unparalleled abomination, could hardly be more relevant for our time. Surreal images of the devastation of the Twin Towers still haunt our collective psyche. They blast unmitigated fear and pain into the human community. With the guns of war sounding in Iraq, and Israelis and Palestinians mowing one another down in the streets of Jerusalem, suffering beats down upon the heads of men, women, and children on all sides. In times like these, faith is in short supply, even for those who call upon the name of the Lord. Among its many layers of meaning, The Pianist reminds the faithful that as long as the musician plays and the painter picks up a brush, there is yet hope for our terribly fallen, God- blessed world.

Copyright @ 2003 Lee Ramsey