The Pianist | Roman Polański

Polański and Kilar’s third and final film together is a fictionalized version of Władysław Szpilman’s wartime memoir interwoven with the director’s autobiographical reminiscences. September 1939: the protagonist, a talented pianist of Jewish origins (Adrian Brody) persuades his parents, brother and sister to remain in Warsaw. Soon, the family has to move to the ghetto, where the musician gets a job in a cafe. German repressions against Jews intensify, and in the end the family find themselves at Umschlagplatz, from which people are being deported to the Treblinka extermination camp. Only Władysław manages to escape deportation and remain in Warsaw. He spends the next years hiding on the Aryan side of Warsaw, miraculously escaping death again and again. He faces death for the last time when he comes across a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann) in an abandoned building. The officer turns out to be a music lover and is so moved by Szpilman’s interpretation of Chopin that he helps him live.

A natural starting point for a musical illustration of the eminent pianist’s long ordeal was provided by Chopin’s compositions, which Szpilman had played to acclaim in his career before the war. The film begins with an anecdotal scene of a live-music programme at Polish Radio being interrupted by bombardment. Later, the protagonist frequently imagines various motifs, playing some in the air, for example Chopin's posthumous Nocturne in C minor, or the Grande Polonaise on an upright piano found in one hiding places with the orchestra accompanying him in his head. When Szpilman is discovered by the German officer in another hiding place it's an emotional interpretation of the G minor Ballade that helps to win his favour. The film ends with a post-war concert performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2.

The film's diegesis includes music by other composers: at the cafe, Szpilman plays Henryk Wars’ Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiątą (I Made a Date with Her for 9 O’clock)]; when hiding in a friend’s flat, he eavesdrops on her playing Bach’s Suite No. 1 on cello; on another occasion, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata can be heard from behind the wall. At the beginning of his stay in the ghetto, when the protagonist is waiting with others to cross an Aryan street, German soldiers force Jews to dance a grotesque dance to the accompaniment of a local band.

Given all these musical elements – to which we should add the entire wartime sound-sphere of shots and shouts, fires and explosions – relatively little space was left for original music. Kilar suggested two motifs: one for string orchestra (violins with an elegiac motif against a background provided by cellos), and one for solo clarinet (sometimes with pizzicato strings echoing Jewish melodies). The former seems to appear at breakthrough moments, a fact emphasized by dates appearing on-screen. It is heard, for example, during the building of the ghetto wall (1940), crossing the ghetto's footbridge over the Aryan street (1942), the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, watched by the protagonist from the other side of the wall (1943), and the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising (1944). Sombre strings emphasize the significance and nature of the events.

A different sound is produced by clarinet for the second theme, usually illustrating Szpilman’s private story and inner experiences, above all his plunging deeper and deeper into despair. It appears for the first time when Szpilman is separated from his family and escapes from Umschlagplatz. Next, we hear it as the pianist is eating the last potato, facing impending hunger. Finally, towards the end, it accompanies his walk through the ruined, deserted city after the Warsaw Uprising. This solo instrument also expresses the loneliness of the protagonist, who is ultimately saved by music.

Excerpts from The Pianist, dir. R. Polański, 2002, © Heritage Films