The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Roman Polanski’s tragic past comes alive in The Pianist

Los Angeles, Jan. 2 (Reuters): The man escaping a roundup of Jews has his life saved with a warning: “Walk, don’t run.” A woman shot by Nazis collapses in a strange contorted way. The windows of a house where a Polish Jew hides are draped totally in black paper to keep out every ray of light.

Director Roman Polanski, 69, doesn’t like to talk publicly or even much privately about his experiences surviving the Holocaust as a boy in Poland.

But his memory speaks volumes about it in a remarkable new movie, The Pianist, a film based ostensibly on another man’s life, the Polish Jewish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman.

It is Polanski who falls to show an extra how her body should twist as it hits the ground after being shot — drawing on the memory he had of a dead woman in the snow long ago.

“Walk, don’t run” are his father’s own words to him when as a scrawny, undersised kid he escapes a ghetto roundup to Auschwitz. It is Polanski who has his set designers cover the windows in black paper because that is what covered the windows of his childhood.

Having just begun a limited release in the US, some critics think the film’s powerful portrayal of one man’s chance survival of the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto and of the random murders, daily demeaning brutality and unspeakable deprivation that took place there could throw an already confused Oscar awards season into disarray.

The film, made in Poland and Germany, has already won the grand prize at Cannes and could make a star of its suffering hero, American actor Adrien Brody in the role of a lifetime.

And it could revive Polanski’s own career as a major world film maker — a career derailed by a sex scandal that ended with his fleeing the US for Paris rather than go to jail for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

Polanski may have made major films like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood but his time there was fraught with scandal and the overwhelming tragedy of his actress wife Sharon Tate and unborn child being murdered in the “Manson family” rampage.

A Los Angeles Times headline last week summed up the feeling of many critics: “Polanski’s tragic The Pianist achieves greatness.” And already, there are some in Hollywood wondering what the scene would be like if the movie won an Oscar and its maker, who is still barred from the US, could not show up because he didn’t want to be jailed.

The Pianist is the story of Warsaw radio pianist Szpilman, who was one of only 20 Jews to have survived the war in Warsaw and his story, based on his 1946 memoir, is the story of the mystery of survival.

The book was suppressed in Communist Poland because of its blunt portrayal of good and evil.

Why did Szpilman live when so many others did not is not an answerable question. Life then was a giant roulette wheel with many, many losers,

The film begins with his playing one of the treasures of Western civilization, a Chopin nocturne, on his radio programme while German bombs rain down on Warsaw and the studio. He keeps playing until the force of the explosions knock him from his piano stool.

The film ends with the war over and Szpilman’s return to playing Chopin, dressed now in a tuxedo and with a full orchestra behind him. But in between, all vestiges of humanity and human decency are stripped away and the elegant young man metamorphoses into a bearded, rail thin Robinson Crusoe surviving first the ghetto and then Warsaw itself as it is bombed to hell by retreating German soldiers.

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