There aren’t any words left in our world to describe the horrors of the Holocaust. Only pictures hold us in sufficient sway to convict, humble and revive determination. As World War II fades into the rapidly receding past, those pictures seem to be intensifying, becoming more vivid and gruesome, as if to somehow counteract the dulling effects of the passage of time. But do not ever confuse these images of the past with entertainment. As "entertainment," The Pianist is an utter failure. Indeed, it is grotesque, gory, frightening and obscene. As an instrument of conviction and instruction, however, it parallels the path taken by Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.
Warsaw, 1939. Composer and pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman passionately plays Chopin as the first German bombs spiral downward. He’s a confident man. A proud man. A handsome man. A Jew. Based on his autobiography, The Pianist follows his perilous journey through the Holocaust, peering in on him as everyone in his family is ripped from his embrace and taken to the death camps. It quietly observes as his music-deprived fingers tap at the cold, empty air, vainly searching for the sleek ivory keys that were once such a comfort. The camera recoils (but never blinks) as it watches his friends—and the strangers he calls his own—fall around him in a hail of Nazi bullets. It squints hungrily as it chronicles his course through torture, abuse, starvation, loneliness, fear and despair. It stares helplessly as he withers away (physically and emotionally) to a shell of his former self, waiting for the Russians to finally cross the river.
positive elements: In the early days of the war, optimism and a faith in the decency of humanity runs high. Szpilman’s family refuses to give in to panic. "Didn’t I tell you, all will be well?" says Father. That changes, of course, but it shows their strong character, and it’s a fortifying image. As things progress from shocking to absurd to unimaginable, hope disintegrates, but Szpilman’s care and respect for others does not. Despite promises of better treatment, he refuses to work as one of the "Jewish Police," disgusted by the idea that he would have to carry out orders from the Third Reich. Outside the ghetto walls, Polish Gentiles risk life and limb to develop an underground structure designed to hide and protect Jews. But it’s one culminating event demonstrating decency, compassion, humanity and forgiveness that gives this film its life. [Spoiler Warning] A German officer shows Szpilman mercy and lets him live (even bringing him food to keep him alive). When Szpilman expresses his overwhelming gratitude, his savior diverts praise, insisting, "Thank God, not me. He wants us to survive. At least that’s what we have to believe." After the war, Szpilman searches for the now-imprisoned officer, hoping to return his kindness. One of Szpilman’s friends admits that when he came across a camp of German POWs, he shouted abuse at them. Then he says to Szpilman, "I’m not proud of it, but that’s what I did."
spiritual content: Virtually none, aside from that single tribute to God by a Nazi officer. That absence of God from the lives of these Polish Jews is disconcerting. Even when things are at their very worst, Yahweh is absent from both thought and conversation.
nudity and sexual content: Limited to a small statue of a nude woman and a couple of glimpses of cleavage revealed by low-cut dresses.
violent content: War violence as intense in its emotion as in its presentation. German soldiers throw a wheelchair-bound man over a balcony to his death. A burning man jumps from a high window. Numerous times Nazis machine-gun groups of Jews. Other times officers "relish" the killings by shooting Jews slowly and casually, one at a time. Several such instances of individual killings are prolonged and grisly. One officer forces a group of Jews to line up, then randomly selects 10 or 15 of them to step forward. He orders them to lie down on the ground, then he calmly walks down the line shooting each person in the head with his pistol. When a woman asks a soldier where he is taking her, his answer is in the form of a bullet which he fires into her brain. Dead bodies (some of which are in the process of decomposing) lie strewn in the streets. No one cares for them. No one can. Jewish passersby step gingerly around them. German army vehicles drive ruthlessly over them. As vile as the scene is, there’s actually a sense of relief when a pile of bodies is shoveled together and burned. A woman wanders aimlessly with her dying child clutched in her arms. Desperately she begs for water. Another woman goes insane after smothering her baby to death trying to keep the child quiet while they hide from the Gestapo. A boy dies after being beaten. Szpilman is flogged when he fails to work hard enough. Buildings burn. Bombs fall. Destruction descends.
crude or profane language: Three f-words (one muffled) and three s-words. Only a handful of milder profanities. God’s name is misused five times.
drug and alcohol content: Alcohol is served for a toast. Szpilman shares vodka with a man. He drinks shots with others. A German officer acts intoxicated after drinking from a bottle. Szpilman smokes once, and ends up gagging on it. Other characters smoke frequently throughout the film.
conclusion: So as not to turn The Pianist into a foreign-language film, director Roman Polanski has the Polish Jews speak English. The Germans, however, speak German, effectively distancing American moviegoers from the aggressors. That’s intentional, and it works to a point, but the incongruity of native Pols speaking English while their oppressors speak German is sometimes jarring. Not so jarring, though, that it distracts from the gravity of the material presented. Instead of following the Jews to the concentration camps as so many Holocaust movies have done in the past, this story stays in Warsaw. Szpilman manages to escape not only death, but also the ghetto. He’s rescued by the Polish underground and ensconced in various apartments to wait out the worst of it. In the process, he nearly starves to death, but his journey gives a unique perspective on the war raging outside. The camera peers over his shoulder as he looks out a progression of windows, furtively hoping that each gunshot he hears will signal the beginning of the end. He watches the Jewish resistance rise, then sees it crushed. He celebrates the German casualties he sees come back from the front lines. He barely believes his eyes as he witnesses the Russians finally freeing his beloved, now devastated city.
It’s a story about the depravity of man. A tale that worms its way into the very heart of man’s darkest, most sinful inclinations (Jeremiah 17:9). It’s a journey that’s not for the faint of heart or the young of age. Unlike typical voyeuristic shoot-’em-up Hollywood revelries, it’s impossible to say that The Pianist’s grueling depictions of war in any way glorify violence. But I am convinced that no one should encounter them lightly.