"The Pianist" in Berlin

John M Cox coxj at email.unc.edu
Sat Dec 28 19:48:12 MST 2002

(I thought some people might appreciate the comments about Polanski's new
movie, which go into a little more detail than the one or two reviews I've
seen; the second half of the article includes a little wishful thinking
about young Germans defending Palestinian rights, which I'm afraid isn't
completely accurate.)

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From: portsideMod at NETSCAPE.NET

"The Pianist" in Berlin

By Mark Solomon

The Odeon Theater in the Schoneberg section of Berlin specializes in English
language films. On a blustery Saturday night in mid-November, I joined a
group of expatriate Americans and Brits, along with German friends at the
Odeon to see Roman Polanski's "The Pianist." Berlin had been buzzing about
the film which had already won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Festival. What
transpired was stunning, moving, and thought provoking.

The film, scheduled for release in the US in early January, is adapted from a
1948 memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a noted Polish-Jewish pianist who survived
the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi occupation of Poland. Szpilman, who died in
2000 at age 87, was born into middle class comfort and substantial social
status. His entire family was thrown into the ghetto and ultimately murdered
at Auschwitz. He survived -- largely because many around him, from Jewish
Capos to antifascist Poles, declined to let the gifted artist perish.

"The Pianist" conveys the horrors of Nazism with haunting understatement that
attacks heart and brain with quiet, relentless authenticity. Its images of
seemingly casual brutality convey the arbitrariness and near banality of
dehumanization and genocide -- showing what it means for an oppressor to
consider fellow human beings as little more than vermin to be humiliated and
destroyed with no more moral concern than one would have for crushing a
cockroach underfoot. A few scenes based on fact drive home that horror
without comment: an old man in a wheelchair who is unable to rise for the SS
who invade his apartment and is thrown from a balcony; penned in Jews waiting
to be allowed to cross a forbidden Polish street that intersected  the ghetto
are forced to engage in humiliating pseudo-comic dancing for the edification
of Nazi soldiers; a Nazi policeman casually shooting now "superfluous"
laborers in the head and they lay face down on the ground. Such images cling
tenaciously to memory.

("The Pianist" inevitably invites comparison with Spielberg's "Schindler's
List." The latter, for all its positive qualities, suffers from that
comparison. Unlike "Schindler's List," the primary focus of Polanski's film
is upon victims and resisters, not upon a conscience-stricken employer of
slave labor, nor does it end in a splash of color with a gratuitous,
politically charged march of a questionably large number of survivors to a
Zionist homeland. "The Pianist" tells a more complex story of both
resignation and resistance, and of remorseless racism and human solidarity.
It unflinchingly portrays deep schisms of class which carried over from
Jewish life in Poland into the early ghetto before annihilation. It was then
that the wealthy profited in relative comfort from smuggling and from
collaboration with Nazis while the poor died in the streets from hunger and
disease. Unlike the Schindler story which did not stress armed opposition,
"The Pianist" portrays the painstaking effort to accumulate arms and forge
the Warsaw Ghetto uprising -- and makes it clear that the rebellion was
largely organized and led by working class communists and socialists. Nor
does Szpilman's story neglect the courage of anti-fascist Poles who risked
their lives to shelter Szpilman, or the deeply religious anti-Nazi German
officer Wilm Hosenfeld who helped Szpilman -- giving the lie to the notion
that the compulsion to commit genocide is somehow rooted in German
nationality and culture.)

Drama was not only happening onscreen. Sitting among two or three hundred
Germans, I could not help wondering what that audience of students,
professionals, and workers was thinking and feeling while viewing such a
wrenching depiction of horrors wrought by Nazism. During the screening, there
was not even the occasional crunch of a candy wrapper. As the crowd streamed
out of the theater, I had never before witnessed such somber, mournful
silence – punctuated by sobs among more than a few of the departing audience.

While those attending an English language film are of course not fully
representative of German society (for this film, German subtitles were
provided, presumably expanding its audience), there is little doubt that the
doleful viewers that night reflected significant political currents in
present-day Germany. Conversation over time with a fairly wide range of
Berliners of all ages leaves an indelible impression of broadly humanistic
and progressive values. Despite occasional grumbling from some sectors about
Holocaust guilt tripping, many Germans today, especially the sixties'
generation to the present, have responded to Nazism and its legacy not with
paralyzing angst, and certainly not with indifference, but with an
indivisible commitment to oppose all forms of oppression. Younger Germans in
particular fiercely oppose anti-Semitism while steadfastly supporting
Palestinian rights - a logically consistent viewpoint with roots in
fundamental allegiance to justice.

Such currents do not depend solely on upon generalized humanism. For many, t
heir commitments spring from tough-minded analyses of corporate globalization
(including the pernicious role of German capital), from the compulsion by
elements of US leadership to forge a post-cold war New Roman Empire, from the
oppressive divide between Global North and Global South, from the
near-universal resurgence of institutional racism and the threat to
fundamental human rights embedded in the "war on terror," and, of course,
from the growing danger of  war emanating from Washington. A good part of
Berlin was eerily depopulated the weekend of November 9-11 when thousands
descended on Florence for the Social Forum and the massive march against
global capital and war.

The European peace movement has called for large demonstrations across the
continent on Saturday, February 15 to protest the obscene march to war on
Iraq. Here at home, the United for Peace coalition has called for a great
outpouring in New York City in solidarity with the European protest. Among
the many aspects of resistance to Bush's drive to war, the international
dimension is among the most important. The unified voice of a global
community has the potential of surrounding the mobilization for war,
complicating the process, and depriving the Bush group of the cover of a
coalition. We owe it to ourselves and to the global community to extend
solidarity to those principled progressives in Europe and elsewhere who weep
at inhuman destruction and who fight with consistency and clear vision for a
peaceful, just world.

(Mark Solomon is a national co-chair of Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism - CCDS.)

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