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Arts & Culture Film on Composer Who Survived War Shows Worst and Best of Humanity

December 16, 2002
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When Nazi troops abandoned Warsaw in January 1945, only 20 out of the city’s prewar Jewish population of 360,000 were still alive.

One of the survivors was Wladyslaw Szpilman, one of Poland’s foremost composers and concert pianists. He lived through Warsaw’s five years of agony, from the opening carpet bombing of the Polish capital, through the ghetto, forced labor and random executions, while witnessing the ghetto uprising of 1943 and the Polish uprising one year later.

Immediately after the liberation of Warsaw by Soviet troops, Szpilman recorded his experiences, in a curiously detached tone, in “Death of a City.”

The result is “The Pianist,” a two-and-a-half hour English-language film with an international cast that opens Dec. 27 in New York and Los Angeles — and in other major cities in January.

It is a movie that is unsparing in its depiction of Nazi sadism and mindless brutality, incredible suffering and the utter destruction of the city. Yet, in the end, the film version of “The Pianist,” like the book, celebrates the power of music, one man’s determination to survive, and the worst and best of some individuals — Jews, Poles and Germans – – amid the universal carnage.

Szpilman originally survives the ghetto by playing popular tunes in a cafe for Jewish black marketeers and collaborators. Through the intervention of a Jewish policeman working for the Nazis, he is one of the few saved from deportation to Treblinka.

He is hidden by a Polish woman after the ghetto is razed, and in the last days of Nazi occupation, hiding in the ruins of the city like a wild, stray animal, is miraculously saved by a music-loving German officer who even gives the freezing Szpilman his overcoat.

In a final scene, Szpilman rushes out to greet the first Soviet troops, unmindful that he is still wearing the German officer’s coat, and barely escapes being killed by the liberators.

The incident might stretch my credulity, except that my cousin, who hid in Berlin throughout the war, experienced an almost identical fate.

Polanski deliberately avoided casting any famous actors. Adrien Brody, an American playing the title role, gives a stunning and utterly convincing performance.

The strong supporting cast includes British actress Emilia Fox as the Polish woman who hides Szpilman, and German actor Thomas Kretschman as the officer who saves him.

After the war, Szpilman resumed his successful career as composer and pianist and died two years ago, at the age of 88.

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