Meeting Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann is like spending time with two old pals who still enjoy joking around with each other even after a difficult shoot in Europe and a grinding publicity tour schedule to promote their extraordinary film, THE PIANIST. Once we began talking about that film, though, they were deadly serious about the subject matter, the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s survival against all odds in Nazi-occupied Poland, including a confrontation with Kretschmann’s Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. That moment drew gasps at the press screening I attended.
Truth can be and often is stranger than fiction and so it is with the true story of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who through chutzpah and luck managed to escape the clutches of the uber-efficient Nazi death machine. His experiences have been rendered with a melancholy poetry by Roman Polanski, who as a child escaped the Warsaw Ghetto.
Szpilman before the war was a nationally renowned musician. At he start of the film, he’s playing Chopin on Polish radio just as World War II begins and bombs drop all around the radio studio, knocking it off the air, and knocking Szpilman’s life into a downward spiral. Little by little, Szpilman, his parents, his two sisters and his brother are subjected to the Nazi process of separating the Jewish population of Warsaw from the rest of the inhabitants. Starting with restaurants and parks being closed to them and then, gradually, too late for protest or escape, they are forbidden to keep more than a pittance in the way of cash, then they must wear a Star of David on their arms, then they’re moved to the Warsaw Ghetto. In one telling moment, Szpillman’s father, played with gentle dignity by Frank Finlay, talks of how they can use the same tricks to survive this war as they did the last one. It hasn’t sunk in how very different this war is, and how dire their situation is. When it does, he rails against the American Jews for not helping them.
Polanski tells the story in dark colors and a straightforward fashion. These images dont need any melodramatic embellishment. And in this way, he is not cheapening the story by appealing to our pity. The people depicted are beyond all that now. What he has this film asks of us is to bear witness that such things happened in a civilized place, to never forget that they can and do happen still.
I spoke with Brody and Kretschmann on December 18, 2002.