“The Pianist”... and the Horror of Human Bigotry and Intolerance

I am so careful what I put in my mind- the images and words and the horror. I had heard of this film... and knowing the topic I have never watched it, I have never considered it at all. A small part of that was the director- what little I have heard about the private life of Roman Polanski hasn't been very good at all. I will see these images for months, for years and they hurt, because I do not feel like I can do anything. The past is over … and yet I feel like these same sentiments echo through our current world and even our hearts. So many of us say that we are better than the Nazi's and that Hitler was pure evil, but in all of these images I see shades of all of us, even me. These classes are so challenging because sometimes I feel like I learn too much, like I feel too much and I feel sometimes like I could die from the feeling of it. So I hope that you can understand what I can't really explain. On a less serious note, I left the subtitles on so I could have help with my spelling... and thank goodness I did or this paper would be a mess of guesses!


This film tells the story of a young Jewish man named Wladyslaw (Wladek) Szpilman who lived with his family in Warsaw, Poland during the very beginnings of World War two. He lived with his father, mother, one brother and two sisters and the film starts at the with the German bombing of Poland. Szpilman is playing piano in the local radio station on air when the street outside is bombed and he stops playing when he becomes injured and the building collapses around him. He returns home and for a few moments his family feels much joy over a BBC broadcast that informs them that Britain has declared war on Germany and that “Poland is no longer alone.” The joy soon turns to anger, terror and fear with the new governments decrees towards anyone of Jewish decent: they cannot go to school, go into many shops, use the public parks or benches, may not walk on the pavement and must wear visible emblems of the Star of David on their arms. Soon his family is forced to live in the Jewish Ghetto as also decreed in the new laws. They struggle to work and live there until the Germans divide them up sending most of his family on a train- he is able to not get on the train with the help of a Jewish police officer who knows him. Wladyslaw later learns that all of his family were most likely sent to Treblinka where they would most likely have died.

Szpilman soon finds himself in a work party/ slave labor group ruled over by some of the German military. He manages to escape with the help of a friend in the slave group who is working to start an uprising and some non Jewish friends outside the ghetto. He is living alone in a small apartment provided by these friends when the Jews in the slave camp commence to try and win their freedom in an act known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Szpilman watches it fail and the few survivors executed by the German troops. Later, when his friends are captured and his apartment is no longer safe he escapes to the emergency address he was given by his last rescuers. There he finds another old friend and she and her husband hide him again. In this apartment, he is again safe for a while. The stress has come with some cost however and he ends up with a severe case of jaundice. While recovering and without the help of his friends who have now left for a safer area, he finds his apartment building in the middle of a battle between the Polish resistance and the Germans and once again is forced to flee, at one point hiding by lying down in the road near other bodies and pretending to be a corpse himself. With no more friends that he knows of or is aware of how to contact, he finds himself searching the bombed out and abandoned buildings for food. He does manage to find a can of food but at the very moment of his discovery of food and what appears to be a peaceful and safe opportunity to open the can, he is discovered by an German officer named Wilm Hosenfield.

The officer questions him, and upon learning that Wladyslaw is a pianist, he asks him to play on a nearby piano in the semi ruined building. In the cold- so cold that you can see his breath, he begins to play and as his hands and his heart warms he plays more quickly and with more feeling- his soul and so much feeling are released through the strokes of his fingers on the ivory keys. The officer doesn't actually appear to have much emotion at all after the recital and asks him more questions. He then leaves him in the place he is hiding and the stress and all of it have been too much and Szpilman begins to sob. Within a few days however, we realize that the officer did feel something powerful from his encounter and as he moves his troops and office personal into the building, he quietly sneaks food up to Wladyslaw in his attic hiding place. The officer also lets him know that the Russians are just across the river and that they will probably cross over within a few weeks. The Germans pack up to leave and Officer Hosenfield gives him more food and his coat. They part amicably with the officer saying he will try to listen to him on the radio. When the Russians come into the town after the Germans leave, they almost shoot Szpilman because he is wearing a German officers coat. When they discover he is Polish, he is set free.

As the war ends, Wladyslaw is able to go back to playing the piano on the radio and to live and try to begin life anew. He also discovers that the German officer that helped him needs help but not knowing his name or where the Russians have taken him, Szpilman can do nothing to help -he continues to earn money playing the piano and we learn he died at eighty-eight years of age. The officer whose name he couldn't remember died in a Soviet prisoner of war camp a few years after the end of the war.

Historical Matrix - The order runs as follows: each number has two sections. The first section shows the part of the film picked for analysis and a brief description of the scene. The second contains the analysis. :)

1. German invasion of Poland / invasion of Warsaw (Oct 1939) - Wladyslaw Szpilman is working at his job at a radio station in Warsaw when the street in front and the nearby buildings are bombed. Slightly injured, he returned to the family home to listen to the radio announcement that both Britain and France had declared war on Germany who had just invaded Poland.

The German invasion of Poland finally began on September 1, 1939 after negotiations and talks between the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and Poland. It is estimated that ten percent of the population at the beginning of the war was Jewish- the city of Warsaw was estimated at being 30% Jewish. This resulted in Poland being divided between both the Third Reich and the Soviet Union with the slightly larger share occupied by Germany.

2. New Anti-Jewish laws / decrees (Dec 1939) - The family discusses the new laws and how they affect them and their community. One of his sisters says that the occupiers “are trying to be more Nazi than the Nazi's”

These laws included provisions such as wearing a 'Star of David' on the arm if you were Jewish, carrying special papers with your race on them and even signs in shops stating the race of the owner. Jews were no longer allowed to own real estate or valuable items- they must all be handed over to the Germans. Jews were only allowed to have 2000 zloty in cash and the rest had to be deposited into a closed account. There were also curfews and decrees against driving and also limited times that Jews could enter and leave the Ghetto for work. Jewish schools were closed and all organizations that were Jewish were disbanded by law. Some businesses did not serve Jews as well.

3. Warsaw Ghetto Development- start 1940 (1942) - The whole Szpilman family is forced to 'move' to the ghetto - their home was already in the land set aside for the ghetto so they were lucky.

The Jewish council or 'quarter' was established in October 1940 and was run by Adam Czerniakow, a Jewish engineer who was put in charge of moving people in and following the German commands for the place. It was completely walled in from the rest of the town (the walls were ten feet high with barbed wire on the top ) and was very cramped with the large population moved into an area slightly larger than three miles.

4. Trains to Treblinka (Aug 1942) - The Szpilman family is forced onto the train to 'somewhere' thought to be a labor camp, Wladyslaw is helped to escape... he discovers later that the train took his family to the concentration camp Treblinka

Treblinka was one of the larger camps built by the Germans during World War II as both a forced labor camp and extermination facility – mostly the latter. Some numbers suggest that 800,000 + individuals died in the camp during its operation between July 1942-July 1944. It was located 50 miles northeast of Warsaw. Most individuals massacred in this camp were killed by a mixture of suffocation and carbon monoxide poisoning. None of his family survived the war and he never saw them again.

5. Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - Wladyslaw Szpilman is looking out of his window in his secret apartment when the end of the uprising is suppressed by the Germans and the last of the resisters that were caught are executed.

The first armed uprising in the Ghetto happened in January 1943. As the Jews that remained in the ghetto realized that the people being forcibly put onto trains to go to labor camps were not actually going to camps but were being exterminated, those left determined to fight as they were going to die anyway. The German Army, unable to quickly quell the revolt, began to burn the buildings in the ghetto in sections to give the rebels fewer safe places to fight from and eventually forcing the insurgents into the sewers and underground. By June 1943, the Germans had successfully put down the uprising with very few survivors. It is thought that 13,000 died either fighting, dying in the fires, or by being sent after capture to concentration camps.

6. Russian Occupation of Warsaw (January 17, 1945) - Szpilman is told by his 'friend' Wilm Hosenfield that the Germans are retreating and the Soviet Army will probably succeed in taking Warsaw in a few weeks- this did happen and after almost being shot by the Russian army, he is finally safe!

The Soviet Army was able to take control over Warsaw in January 1945 and pushed the German occupation out. However, the Russian army waited for over two months to help allowing the Germans to overcome the Polish resistance and giving Poland and its control pretty much to the Soviet Union. It is suggested by many historians that this delay was purposeful so that Russia and Stalin could have control over more of Eastern Europe after the war.

7. Starvation - You can see the bodies of the Jews that died of starvation in the film and the slenderness of the actor himself through the film as he gets thinner and thinner over time.

This is a typical tactic that occupiers and governments have taken in the past to crush and decrease an unwanted or hostile population. Inside the Warsaw ghetto, food allotted for going in was not nearly enough for the population and so people of all ages became weak and died from lack of calories and nutrients. Another example of starvation in history around this time was the Holodomor in the Ukraine caused by Joseph Stalin and his collectivization policies.

8. Genocide – the 'Final Solution'

Originally determined by German government officials and Nazi party officials to deal with the 'Jewish' problem, this plan was nicknamed Operation Reinhard and how it would be implemented. This decision was not made at the conference as the 'Final Solution' had already been made higher up in government- only the implementation and details were ironed out during this conference. No one at this meeting objected to this operation and it was discussed that around 11,000,000 Jewish people would need to be 'affected' by this policy. There was even discussion on when to enforce the policy on 'secondary' participants such as non- Jews who had married Jews and how to convince other states to turn over their Jewish populations to the Nazis.

9. Eugenics - While the film concentrated mostly on anti-semitism, eugenics was the background to removal of the Jews and also led to ward the sterilization and extermination of other undesirables that affected the pure 'Aryan' race- Jehovah's Witnesses, gypsies, people of Slavic decent, and dissidents...

The first eugenics society started in Germany was called the 'German Society of Racial Hygiene' by Alfred Ploetz in 1905. It didn't gain popularity until after WWI. Laws were passed that prevented non-Jews from marrying Jews and to also prevent those individuals considered 'defective' from reproducing by compulsory sterilization... and laws and other services that promoted the reproduction of the 'right' people. These societies or ideas can be found in other nations around this time, including the United States.

10. Socialism - Some of the people who were killed in the film and also who protected Szpilman were Socialist.

Socialism is a movement which was attempting to make society more just towards workers and all people in general. Many Jewish individuals and groups were attracted to the tenets of socialism to help themselves leave poverty behind and even get rid of the baggage that their heritage might give them. Both democratic and communist governments saw the socialist movement as a threat to their forms of government. Some of the people executed as enemies of the state in Germany were members of the Social Democratic party.

11. Racism / Anti-Semitism - Several examples in the film

Some examples can be seen simply by the behavior of the Germans themselves. The Warsaw Ghetto was rationalized by the Germans as a solution to the 'diseases' such as typhoid that all Jews carried. In fact, the term 'ghetto' was not allowed because that would have suggested bias- the area was to be called the Jewish quarter where they (the Jews) could have total freedom and safety while not infecting the general 'Aryan' population. The Nuremberg Laws are also examples as well as the behavior of the Germans towards Jewish individuals.

So after all that, what are your thoughts?


  1. This movie made me very angry against the pacifism that people had. They should have been shouting give me freedom or give me death long before anyone even thought of getting on a train no matter where it went. That is easy for us to say sitting in our warm houses typing away. The real question that troubles me is, could I really do it? Would I resist or would I be a pacifist? Can that question really be answered by anyone without the experience? Good article Sonia.

  2. What fear does to all of us can be quite shocking. I don't know what I would do either in the same situation. A book I just finished called 'Nazi Terror- the Gestapo, Jews, and ordinary Germans' was amazing at teasing a lot of these themes out. If you are interested you should give it a read. Thank you for the compliment, Lance. This was a really painful project.