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Thoughts on “The Pianist”

April 20, 2009

I watched the film “The Pianist” this weekend, which chronicles the true story of a Polish pianist named Wladysaw Szpilman in Warsaw during World War II. To say that this film was like an iron fist in my stomach wouldn’t even be the entire truth. It winded me and even now, days later, I am left shaken.

To see the cold reality of the Jewish ghettos, the blind inhumanity and absolute cruelty — I felt queasy the whole two and a half hours. I can’t hardly imagine how something this gutting could happen only within the last 65 years; that’s not even an entire lifetime ago. Yet it did. The desecration of it was overwhelming. Out of 500,000 people in the Warsaw ghetto, only a handful survived. 500,000 — not just numbers, but people with lives and dreams and homes and families. Even as someone born 40 years after the war ended, I still feel haunted by those voices, and the millions of others that were silenced in those six years. The atrocities of it will never stop shocking me. I cannot imagine stepping out my door to a reality like that; I cannot imagine that actually being my life when it’s not on a movie screen or in a book or museum. How does someone survive something like that?

What I found so amazing about this film in particular was that the director, Roman Polanski, was a survivor of the Jewish ghettos in Krakow, Poland, and of the Holocaust itself. He saw the cattle trains being crammed full of people being sent to the slaughter, like animals; his neighbors, the local grocer, piano teachers, children, even his own family. And yet to still be able to make a film like this and have it end on a note of hope, to be a testament to the strength of the human spirit and not the frailty of it; it’s something truly and humbly beautiful.

The kind of hell on earth that Poland and many other places saw during those years should not be able to exist shoulder-to-shoulder with anything normal, like laughter or wildflowers or even color. I feel like that kind of collision should have made the world implode on itself, because it was just too much. I do not understand what it is in a human being that can fill you with such inhumane rage, with such poisonous hatred for another person. I cannot fathom what it is to take away the dignity of a person until they are closer to an animal than a human being. I can never stand for a way of life or religion that builds itself up on pounding others down. Yet still, in a world where we are so convinced that we can live in black and white, the truth is always painted in strokes of grey. Even those of who hate evil are still susceptible to the disease of being brokenly human.

Chaim Potok, an incredible author who has written prodigiously of Jewish culture, said this in his book The Promise:

The Master of the Universe has so created the world that everything that can be good can also be evil. It is mankind that makes a thing good or evil, Reuven, depending upon how we use the wonders we have been given.

I would think that you’d have to cling to that belief in order for any shred of faith to be left after going through something so traumatic. When you look around you to see that the life you lived and the place you lived it in are leveled to rubble and bones, you’d have to believe that there is something bigger than humanity and our broken decisions. You’d have to believe that evil is a choice and not a punishment from an angry God. Elie Wiesel, who also wrote of the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective, once said, “In a world of absurdity, we must invent reason.”

There is this beautiful moment in “The Pianist,” where Szpilman is discovered hiding in the ruins of the ghetto by a German solider. Gaunt, feathered in rags and starving, he seems to almost welcome the idea of death. After the years of surviving horrors that shouldn’t exist outside of Hell itself, he seems nearly at the end of all hope. His entire posture of being is a lament for what he has lost. When the officer finds out that Szpilman is a pianist, he asks him to play him something. His breath coming out in deep, rattling clouds, Szpilman pulls a chair up to the piano and begins to play. Never in my life have I heard or seen something that spoke more strongly of hope, a strength that may flourish even as it finds itself weak and battered in the midst of absolute destruction. As he played, it was like that one last crumb of faith he had left was sparked on fire, and it poured forth from him like thunder. His music reminds him why he’s fighting to survive. And in those gray shades of truth that we are all so lost in, the German solider takes pity on him and helps him hide, providing him with food and his own coat to keep warm.

Even now, days later, this film is haunting me.

I cannot and will not stop grieving for times such as those. I refuse to forget that things like this happened and continue to happen, because it reminds me that there is always something to fight for. When we find ourselves destroyed with the weight of suffering and pain and inhumanity, we are reminded that it is not what we were made for, nor is it what we are expected to endure without promise of hope. The Jews are a people defined by a Promised Land and a God who is leading them there. Yet Jews or Christians or Muslims or atheists, we are not left without that same promise, by a God that loves us with a power that cannot forsake. God save us from the things we do to each other in His name.

……

We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.
– Mohandas Gandhi

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