Flashback Fridays: The Pianist
In this bloody Summer as Israel engages in yet another, terrifying invasion of Gaza, a certain film kept returning to my mind. It was Roman Polanski's 2002 Oscar-winner "The Pianist." The relevance of the film is uncanny in its tale of a people under siege and the consequences of violent resistance. The best known of the exiled director's work in the last decade, "The Pianist" recreates life in Poland's Warsaw area during the Nazi occupation during World War II. It follows the journey of a professional pianist, a Jew named Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) as he survives life in the Warsaw Ghetto and then escapes only to live in hiding in the city itself as food becomes scarce, informers litter every corner and Nazi troops soon storm in to crush a popular uprising. Szpilman must learn to survive amid the ruins and flames of war and cruelty.
It is difficult for anyone who has been following the Gaza War closely to watch "The Pianist" without finding the links and shadows history sometimes bonds between events. Polanski, a master of meticulous filmmaking (his "Macbeth" will make you feel as if you can smell Medieval England) re-creates with cinematographer Pawel Edelman and production designer Allan Starski, war-time Warsaw with such realism and detail that comparisons with real photos can be stunning in similarity. The opening scenes of the film are lush in color as Szpilman and his family live comfortably but on edge as the war creeps closer. Once the Nazis arrive and they are moved into the notorious Ghetto, where the Jewish population was to be starved and worked to death until they dropped dead or were taken to concentration camps, the film takes on a gritty, grey tone and even shadows become dangerous.
And it is here that a cinematic comparison can be drawn with Gaza. Ironically, the film was released at the heigh of the last Palestinian Intifada, when Palestinian fighters all over the occupied territories were engaged in a violent uprising against Israeli forces. To compare Israeli troops to Nazis is of course obscene, because direct comparisons are difficult to make because history never repeats itself 100%, only traces or shades of past events can be found in the present. But the shades are there.
Consider the settings. In one scene we see through a window as the German invaders begin walling off the Ghetto with a massive brick wall, this can easily bring to mind the blockade of Gaza as Israel enforces a tight siege through which only certain goods can cross through (Israeli officials even calculate how many calories Gazans need to be kept alive). In one scene Szpilman walks with a line of Ghetto Jewish workers by the siege wall as Jews secretly exchange goods and traffic merchandise through tunnels dug through the wall, this is the same as today's Palestinian smugglers who use tunnels underneath Gaza to smuggle goods and supplies. One common route was Egypt which has now been closed off by the new military dictatorship.
The film's scenes of life inside the Warsaw Ghetto ring true to today's Gaza. Smugglers make a killing and a small sector of the population can eat in fancy restaurants. Ghetto police are Jewish collaborators with the Nazis, a brave depiction Polanski can make because he himself survived World War II in Poland, having lived in the Krakow Ghetto with his parents. A militant underground promotes the idea of armed struggle, in one scene Brody converses with a radical, socialist Jew printing resistance propaganda. Gaza today is of course a besieged war zone, with a guerrilla group operating inside the ghetto while spies and collaborators fester about (just today Israeli media is reporting that Hamas executed 6 spies after three guerrilla commanders were assassinated by the Israelis).
In some of the film's cruelest moments, Nazi officials chastise Jews in the Ghetto for their own hunger, telling them to make money, to do business which is what Jews are known for anyway. Of course when they do smuggle certain foods and goods, the Nazis beat them. Today it is common for those in favor of Israel's current war to chastise the Palestinians for failing to turn Gaza into a glorious seaside resort or port, ignoring the siege, economic strangulation and massive destruction from bombing raids.
Through out the film, Brody's character sees the Nazi invasion, occupation and Jewish then Polish uprising from afar, usually from above through apartment windows. This is our own view of Gaza as we can only follow events from TV, the internet and the footage coming out of the besieged territory. It is when Szpilman is smuggled out of the Ghetto and into the city that his bird's eye view connects so viscerally to what is happening today.
When the film's first uprising breaks out, the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1943, Szpilman sees distant fires and explosions in the Ghetto as German troops surround an apartment building from which Jewish rebels toss Molotov cocktails and fire rag-tag weapons before the building is set alight, the rebels marched out and executed. The shot of the distant, burning explosion resembles eerily the TV images we see today of plumes arising from explosions caused by Israeli F-16s bombing Gaza as a rag-tag group below dares fight off a more powerful invader.
Soon afterwards Szpilman argues with a Polish woman about the uprising, calling it meaningless, she tells him "they died with dignity." How many Palestinians today can relate to this scene?
When the general Polish partisan rebellion against the Nazis breaks out the film enters a new phase of intensity, terror and destruction as all of Warsaw becomes a ruin of war. Szpilman must hide in various buildings and seek food as rebels attack the Germans from all over and the Germans respond with massive firepower, including tanks firing on indiscriminate buildings. These scenes recall images reported by journalist Max Blumenthal in Gaza, who in a harrowing new article entitled "Gruesome Tales Surface Of Israeli Massacres In Gaza Neighborhood," describes the recent, brutal Israeli assault on the neighborhood of Shujaiya.
In one scene Brody must make soup in a destroyed building, finding wood to heat the pot. Indeed, Blumenthal writes "I met members of the Atash family reclining on mats beside a makeshift stove. Khalil Atash, the 63-year-old patriarch of the family, motioned to his son heating a teapot above a few logs and muttered, 'They’ve [the Israelis] set us back a hundred years. Look at us, we’re now burning wood to survive.'”
In one scene Szpilman watches as Ghetto rebels jump from a building in flames as the Nazis use flame throwers to drive them out, Blumenthal reports the account of a Palestinian named Tamer during the fighting in Shukaiya and writes "Tamer watched some of his neighbors jump from fourth-floor windows as their homes burst into flames."
One shot that might escape viewers in its sheer relevance shows a Polish partisan aiming a shoulder missile at Nazi headquarters, firing it and scoring a direct hit. This is so close to the popular images of Palestinian fighters brandishing RPGs.
One final comparison that can be made is silent and yet so evocative. When the fighting in Warsaw ends Szpilman emerges to find a city turned into complete rubble, into piles of concrete and slab. A comparison between these shots and the images coming out of the demolished neighborhoods of Gaza is immediately haunting and revelatory.
The link between Warsaw and Gaza is not new, it has been found by the Ghetto fighters themselves. The year "The Pianist" was released, legendary Warsaw Ghetto fighter Marek Edelman caused a stir in Israel when he wrote a letter to Palestinian fighters, supporting their cause and calling them "partisans." When Edelman died in 2009, John Rose, who helped co-author his great work "The Ghetto Fighters," wrote in The Independent that "Edelman had always resented Israel's claim on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as a symbol of Jewish liberation. Now he said this belonged to the Palestinians."
In April, 2013 one of the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Chavka Fulman-Raban, also expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause and stated at a public event, "Rebel against the Occupation. No–it is forbidden for us to rule over another people, to oppress another [people]. The most important thing is to achieve peace and an end to the cycle of blood[letting]."
Could it be that in times of war art achieves a higher, more urgent relevance? Great art has the power to clarify an event, a moment in time. In the case of "The Pianist," the story and history it portrays casts a haunting, universal shadow over what is happening today in Gaza. Because humans are humans, no matter the culture, they remain driven by the same, destructive urges and obsessions that infect all states. As the war on Gaza continues, as fighters and civilians are consumed in the fire, more ghosts of history will arise in the form of art such as Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," and force us to remember.