Sweetness of Caramel, bitterness of Death

Friday, 24 May, 2013 - 10:32 am

This year, 2013, is the 10th anniversary of Roman Polanski achieving one of the greatest cinematic experiences of a film-maker; he received an Oscar for directing a brilliant tale of courage, hope, suffering, trauma, and above all, the triumph of the human spirit: The Pianist (2002).


We can admire Polanski for a multitude of his personal achievements; escaping death and surviving the Holocaust, becoming an auteur director, creating masterpieces such Rosemary’s Baby (1968)and Chinatown (1974). However, personally, I find his greatest professional achievement in the ‘representation of death in an historical context’. Not any history, but the most daunting, tragic and devastating aspect of history. Look at the words I am using to describe the Holocaust: daunting, tragic and devastating. For a 21st century writer, all I am achieving is romanticising the dark days of the world in the 1930s and ‘40s. I’m afraid this is as close as I can get to the Holocaust; I did not experience it, and no one in my family experienced it. Polanski, however, experienced it. His family experienced it. His childhood friends experienced it. He therefore can understand and feel what the Holocaust means. Its suffering and traumas are in his memory, and he as a visionary director and master of storytelling exposes this understanding perfectly through the medium of film.


The Pianist is the survival story of Władysław Szpilman, a great musician who is among a handful of Polish Jews who see the ending of the Second World War. One man escapes death, but so many are unjustly and viciously murdered. The narrative of the film flows as smoothly as the writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the difference being that his works have one foot in history and one foot in Jewish wisdom and mysticism. Polanski has both feet in history and rightly so. Some traumas are too vivid and real to be dramatised.


Death in the film gradually becomes the face of the city of Warsaw; in the opening scene of the film, engaging with black and white images of old documentaries, Polanski gives us the pre-war face of Warsaw: people living in synchronisation and concord. Even this is not entirely true, considering the political issues of the country in the early 1930s. Still, it is paradise compared to later tragedies.  


The scene is accompanied by the soft and tender notes of Władysław playing Chopin in on the radio. His playing is interrupted as Warsaw is bombarded by the Germans. The peace and harmony is gone. Death has entered the town.


Later in the film the Nazi soldiers throw a crippled and elderly neighbour of Szpilman’s family out of the window, killing him. This is followed by the soldiers bringing the rest of the old man’s family outside of their humble apartment, making them run and then shooting them. The organic and un-dramatised presentation of death in this scene suggests first-hand knowledge of the trauma which this representation of death refers to, and of course years of practice in filmmaking.


From here on, the film penetrates more and more into the depths of the psyche of death and decay that Nazi ideology has to offer to Warsaw in general, and to Jews in particular. Soon the Jewish area of Warsaw is separated from the rest of the city. A border that fetishises the death is built: our hero, the pianist, is on his way back home when he witnesses a mere young boy of nine or ten, beaten to death by German soldiers. Władysław holds the corpse in his arms and cries; the bitterness of death, an unfriendly taste that anybody would remember for the rest of their lives.


Soon afterwards, as the film’s narrative progresses, so does the number of the dead. Hunger and illness transform the ghetto into a big cemetery. People die; no one cares. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t afford to care. This constant presence of death, tragically, has become the normal atmosphere of the ghetto. For many young people of the current era, this is hard to digest. For those who went through Holocaust, death was the most definite aspect of life. And, Władysław has to survive all this; ‘has to’, for it was thanks to individuals like him that we learnt about the extent of the tragedy.


Polanski again and again in The Pianist refers to the bitterness of death; towards the end of the film, the death of individual Jews begets the death of the city. The Jewish uprising is followed by Warsaw’s uprising. They may be unsuccessful attempts in defeating the Germans, but they project the meaning that some of the able people have tried to fight back. They want to defeat death and replace it with life. Their death, Jews and Polish people, would become a tragic but shining light for the future generation.


Many people contributed to Władysław’s survival: from Jewish friends and comrades, to an old flame and a Nazi officer. He cherishes this memory of survival through his music. The ending of the film is one of the simplest and yet most effective endings in modern cinema: the pianist, the film’s hero, a real life hero, plays his music for the people in a post-war era. His family and many friends are dead, but he still shares his music, talent and indeed survival with everyone free of their race and religion.


I will end this article by writing on the last time that Władysław and his family (his parents, two sisters and brother) are together, before all of them but the pianist are sent to Treblinka. They put their last bits of money together and buy a small caramel candy. The father as the head of family breaks the small but sweet taste into equal pieces and gives one to each member of the family. This is the true last supper; a family on the verge of destruction shares the sweet taste of the caramel. No matter how tragic and daunting death is, life continues, and it continues to remember those who were courageous enough to share it before the end.   

Author: Alireza Vahdani is from Iran; he is a writer and researcher. Alireza is an associate lecturer in Oxford Brookes University. The main area of his research is the presentation of death in narrative-fiction films.  

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