Horror and Roman Polanski’s Holocaust

Just before I left the Philadelphia area, Ashley and I sat down to a romantic evening watching a Holocaust drama – namely, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). Adrien Brody, who deservingly won an Oscar for his performance, is Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (duh) living in Warsaw during World War II. Brody is the film’s core, yet he’s never histrionic or larger than life; as a matter of fact, he’s smaller than life, as he grows more and more emaciated and is forced into tiny, claustrophobic spaces. It’s a very understated film that replaces the expected emotional outpours (see Schindler’s List) with muted reactions and muffled sobs.

Whereas Spielberg’s List almost becomes giddy with the process of duping the Nazis (sort of like a prestige version of Indiana Jones), Szpilman is always receding and taking anything he can get. There’s no room for huge gestures when a sip of water is a miracle. For long portions of the film, Brody barely says anything while his friends and family argue about possible courses of action. After he escapes the ghetto and is smuggled into a series of apartments, he becomes purely a survivalist, ultimately risking his life for a can of pickles. Szpilman’s story combines luck with animalistic perseverance because, as the film suggests, those two traits are necessary to survive.

If you’re like me, your ears pricked up when I said the word “apartment” back there, for it’s no coincidence that Polanski also directed the “Apartment Trilogy” of horror films (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant). The Pianist is, perhaps surprisingly, very much of a piece with this earlier work – only this time around, Polanski’s paranoid, fidgety style is applied to real-life horrors experienced by the director himself, albeit in Krakow.

It’s useful, I think, to look at The Pianist as an autobiographical/historical companion to Polanki’s fiction-based films. It shares its basic characteristics with much of his filmography: a frightened individual must escape from an overarching conspiracy that s/he is powerless to stop and incapable of fully understanding. Rosemary crumbles physically and emotionally in the satanists’ hands; Jake is rendered speechless by Noah Cross’s unfathomable, wide-reaching evil; Trelkovsky is warped by the posthumous pull of Simone Choule’s habits; and Szpilman is reduced to a shadow of a man by the unyielding grip of the SS.

All of these fights are intrinsically unfair because the characters’ opponents are conspiratorial and nebulous. Szpilman and the others are just human beings, ordinary and alone, being oppressed by indestructible systems. This comparison clarifies Polanski’s view of the Nazis: they’re agents of horror with the scales tilted violently in their favor, able to gaze down with ease on Szpilman even as he tries to escape their field of vision. Imbalances in vision, and therefore knowledge, are vital to the conflict in Polanski’s films. Just think of Jake Gittes’s investigation in the first act of Chinatown as he peeks through spyglasses and cameras, not realizing that he’s being set up.

Szpilman is similarly myopic, but unlike Jake, it’s not because he’s too headstrong to see; instead, it’s because he’s an individual and hence unable to perceive the historic arc of the war surrounding him. All he can do is listen for immediate developments; the Nazis have too tight a lid on their future plans. (In one horrifying scene, a woman asks a Nazi officer, “Where are you taking us?” and he promptly shoots her.) The visual equivalent to this myopia is the keyhole shot.

The keyhole shot, in which an object is viewed through a narrowed scope akin to a silent film iris, is one of Polanski’s stylistic trademarks. It was the entire substance of his early film Toothy Smile and was most famously used to look at Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. In the shot pictured above – and, later on, through a crack in a hospital window – Szpilman struggles for a glimpse of the hostile outside world. Like Polanski’s other apartment-bound protagonists, he wants to keep up a protective barrier while still sizing up external threats. For Carole in Repulsion, that threat was a single young man; for Szpilman, it’s the carnage that engulfs Warsaw in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising.

It’s not just Szpilman’s relationship with his volatile wartime world that reminded me of the Apartment Trilogy. It’s also the way the denizens of that world are represented. The Nazis and their Polish allies take their position of authority over the Jews seriously to an absurd and irrational degree. One Nazi insists that Szpilman’s father walk in the gutter, a ridiculous request that suggests the ridiculousness of its historical context, and a landlady who demands Szpilman’s papers greatly resembles Shelley Winters’ bitchy concierge in The Tenant. The Jews in the ghetto, meanwhile, adapt to their grotesque situation in different ways – some by lashing out, some by grifting their neighbors, and some by turning inward like Szpilman.

Polanski’s presentation of the ghetto, in scenes like the one pictured above, is sometimes tinged with the very blackest of humor. These little ironies aren’t “ha ha” funny; they emphasize the utter, incomprehensible injustice of it all. Another example is when Szpilman is discovered by the Russians as they march into Poland, but is shot at because he’s wearing a Nazi officer’s coat. The Russians corner him, conclude that he’s Polish, and ask, “Then why the fucking coat?” Szpilman’s response almost sounds like a bleak punchline: “I’m cold.” His suffering is so obvious that pointing it out verges on comedy.

The Pianist is a film about the kafkaesque side of the Holocaust: about how it slowly descended on an unsuspecting family who didn’t realize its enormity until it was too late. Structurally, it’s very much like one of Polanski’s psychological horror movies or conspiracy thrillers, but greatly magnified, as the villains here have created an efficient killing machine that encompasses an entire continent. Szpilman could never stop the Nazi onslaught, but the film does hold out one saving grace. Despite the loss of his family and community, he does live to play the piano again. In Polanski’s world, which was partially shaped by firsthand experiences with the Holocaust, that’s the best you can hope for.

As a final treat, I noticed a few images that very clearly echoed Polanski’s other films. It can’t be coincidence that Szpilman is given a potato that has begun to sprout, identical to the symbolic tuber from Repulsion:

And it’s not surprising that the order-into-chaos image of papers scattering in the air would appeal to Polanski. Here’s a shot that appears to anticipate the ending of The Ghost Writer by nearly a decade:

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Horror and Roman Polanski’s Holocaust

  1. It’s funny you published this piece just today because I’ve had dreams recently about SEEING The Tenant even though I’ve never actually seen it. It’s on my list for sure; I hate how Blockbuster won’t send it to me.

    The Pianist is one of my ten favorite films of the decade. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the whole thing, though, and ever since then I’ve seen some of Polanski’s other films for the first time, namely Repulsion and of course The Ghost Writer. So your piece has promted me to look for those keyhole shots and the deformed potato (like Deneuve’s deformed rabbitt!) next time I watch The Pianist. The flying papers in the wind is what really surprises me. I wish I had been more familiar with that shot when I went in to see The Ghost Writer, since me and some friends believes that the final shot of TGW was merely Polanski’s homage to Kubrick’s The Killing. But no: flying papers is one of his specialities, it seems.

    Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say Schindler’s List is an inferior work by comparison–to me both films are still the finest Holocaust movies in the English language. Both Polanski and Spielberg often get unfairly criticized for attempting to compact a tragedy as enormous as the Holocaust into mainstream entertainment, even when both films offer equal doses of horror, madness, sentimentality and even humor (in The Pianist, the “I’m cold” punchline, and in Schindler’s List, when Schindler goes to jail for molesting the innocent Jewish mother and his Nazi cellmate asks, “Did your prick fall off?”).

    • You should definitely see The Tenant – it’s underrated, very creepy, and has a great cast (Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas). Plus Polanski cross-dressing.

      I’m tempted now to go look at Schindler’s List again when I have the chance. I’d be interested to look at List and The Pianist – certainly the two highest-profile English-language films about the Holocaust – and how they compare to foreign-language films I haven’t seen like, oh, Kapo or Europa Europa.

      Glad I could help you look at Polanski’s films in a slightly new light!

  2. Is it wrong that I avoid Holocaust movies as much as possible? I mean, every year, the school will make us watch Schindler’s List or a History Channel Documentary, but otherwise, I’m just never in the mood to be so severely depressed.

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