The Pianist: the moving true story behind Roman Polanski’s masterpiece

2002 is the year of consecration for Roman Polanski, who leaves the Cannes Film Festival with the Palme d’Or for his film “The Pianist”. His most personal work, which is neither fiction nor autobiography, but the adaptation of the miraculous and authentic account of the horror of the Holocaust by pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman.

The pianistthe story Roman Polanski needed

Survivor of the Krakow ghetto, the director Roman Polansky waited a long time before delivering his story on the Holocaust. In the early 90, Steven Spielberg had already proposed to the author of Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown to stage Schindler’s List. But this story and its scenario which then appear to him as far too lively and personal.

Roman Polanski declines, but the idea is there. His film cannot be an autobiography, nor pure fiction. He thus needs a story, a testimony, words where he would find the right and perfect distance to dive into the subject. At the end of the 90s, he finally found the story from which he would draw one of his greatest successes in 2002: The pianist.

Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) – The Pianist ©BAC Films

Interpreted by Adrian Brody and Thomas Kretschmann in the main roles, The pianist recounts the survival of a man, a professional pianist, in the Warsaw ghetto and then during the end of the war, and the music-loving German officer who helped him survive. The film was a unanimous success and covered in prestigious awards (Palme d’or in 2002, seven César and three Oscars in 2003). And like Schindler’s List a few years earlier, it was by telling another true story that The pianist offers its moving spectacle.

A miraculous survival

The character played by Adrien Brody is none other than Wladyslaw Szpilman, Polish pianist, author and composer. Born in 1911 into an Ashkenazi Jewish family, Wladyslaw Szpilman was already a famous musician when the Second World War broke out. Moved with the city’s Jewish population in the terrible Warsaw ghetto in October 1940, he miraculously escaped deportation to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942. His whole family was deported there.

From August to October 1944, the Warsaw Uprising pitted the Polish resistance against German forces in clashes that left the city in ruins. Most of the population left but some remained and became “Robinson Crusoe of Warsaw”. Wandering in the ruins, they survive in hiding to escape the Germans.

Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) - The Pianist
Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) – The Pianist ©BAC Films

Wladyslaw Szpilman is one of those “Robinson Crusoe of Warsaw” and it was during this period, when the Germans knew that the war was lost, that he was spotted one day by a German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld. In the house where he hides, there is a grand piano. The officer, a music lover, is aware of the inevitable German defeat. But above all, he is revolted by the treatment inflicted on the Polish population, Jewish and non-Jewish. He then asks the pianist to play.

Very weak, almost starved to death, Wladyslaw Szpilman then plays a ballad of Chopin. Wilm Hosenfeld will come to his aid, allowing him to hide in the attic of the house and bringing him food regularly. In January 1945, Wilm Hosenfeld was taken prisoner by Soviet forces and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He died in 1952. Wladyslaw Szpilman will have tried everything to see him again, without success.

When A city dies bECOMES The pianist

The true story told The pianist is awful. But she is also the moving testimony of a profound humanity. Wladyslaw Szpilman resumed his professional activity at the end of the war, but he immediately wanted to tell his life during these six years of war. Thus, from 1946he published this story in Poland, under the title A city dies. But the communist leaders then in power censored him. Indeed, after the horror of the Second World War, it was impossible to present a German officer as a saviour. The various governments that follow maintain this censorship for decades.

A city dies is thus for a very long time unknown to the world. He remained so until 1997, the year in which Andrezj, the son of Wladyslaw Szpilman, embarked on a new publication ofA city dies, which he found in his father’s library. The title changes and the narrative becomes The pianist. It was published in 1998 in Germany and very quickly became a bestseller on all continents. Roman Polanski then discovers this testimony. According to James Greenberg, who reports the director’s words in his 2013 book Roman Polanski: a retrospectivethe filmmaker says:

The time had come. You don’t often find stories like this.

Today, thanks in part to Roman Polanski’s film adaptation, The pianist constitutes one of the most famous testimonies on the Holocaust.

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The Pianist: the moving true story behind Roman Polanski’s masterpiece