34: The Pianist

Roman Polanski directed his first film in 1955, a short film named Rower. Since then, he’s gone on to write, direct and even act in a number of movies that you’ve certainly seen, or at least heard of.

During his childhood, Roman survived the Holocaust by hiding in a Polish farmer’s barn for the duration of the war. As with anyone who lived through such horrific events, his life would never be the same.

So with Roman’s past that has connections to the story in The Pianist, how accurate was the film? Listen to the episode below to find out!

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Transcript

Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Wladyslaw Szpilman was born on December 5th, 1911 in the city of Sosnowiec, which at the time was a part of the Russian Empire but is in modern-day Poland. He learned how to play the piano at the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw in the late 1920s.  

In 1931, he studied at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. He left Berlin in 1933, just as Adolf Hitler was taking control of Germany as its Chancellor. 

Upon returning to Warsaw, Wladyslaw, or Wladek, as most people called him, earned a living touring Poland as a pianist for a year before joining the Polish radio. For years, he made a name for himself performing on the radio.  

And that’s where the events depicted in the opening scene of the movie start. Wladek, who’s played by Adrian Brody in the film, opens the movie by playing the piano over the radio. It’s Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C# Minor.  

As he plays, the station is bombed and everyone is forced to evacuate the building. While rushing out, Wladek runs into a friend, who introduces him to his sister, Dorota, who’s played by Emilia Fox. 

These events are pretty accurate, although the one inaccuracy here is with the character of Dorota, someone who’s never mentioned in Wladek’s autobiography. In fact, probably the biggest criticism many historians had for the film was Roman Polanski’s decision to add a love interest between Wladek and Dorota when there was none because, as far as we know, she didn’t even exist. 

Back in the movie, when Wladek returns home, his family is packing to leave Poland. This is interrupted when they hear that both Britain and France have declared war on Germany. It’s a cause for celebration as they believe the fight will be over soon now that Britain and France have entered the war. 

The specifics of the conversations and such are fictionalized for the film, but the basic gist of this is accurate. On September 1st, 1939, the German Luftwaffe started bombing Warsaw and began what we now know as the Siege of Warsaw. 

Although this isn’t mentioned in the movie, the German propaganda was running at high gear at this point, so many of the German and Polish people truly thought that it was Poland who was the aggressor and the Germans were merely acting in self-defense. Of course, history now shows that the incidents the German propaganda pointed to was all staged by the Germans. 

On September 3rd, two days after the first German bombs fell, both Britain and France responded to the German aggression in Poland by declaring war on Germany. 

This didn’t stop the Germans. On September 8th, the aerial assault ended and the German army started to arrive. For almost a full month, the Polish army held off the Germans until, on September 28th, the siege ended with about 100,000 Polish soldiers being taken prisoner.

 

Three days later, the German Wehrmacht marched into Warsaw and then, on October 8th, the German government announced their annexation of western Poland. The Soviet Union annexed eastern Poland as a part of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. 

In the movie, after the Germans take over Poland, we see through the eyes of Wladek and the Szpilman family as things start to deteriorate in Warsaw. It starts small. As a Jew, Wladek isn’t allowed to enter a restaurant. A Nazi soldier slaps Wladek’s father, who’s played Frank Finlay in the film, and tells him to walk in the street instead of the sidewalk. 

This little-by-little deterioration is pretty accurate to what really happened. When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, it had the largest population of Jews out of any European country.  

Before the German invasion in 1939, there were an estimated 3.35 million Jews in Poland. At the time, Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million. About a third of those were Jews, or about 363,950 people. 

Like the movie indicates, when the Germans took over Warsaw, they didn’t come in and start killing Jews right away. Instead, they started by restricting rights one at a time. Refusing access to shops, segregation from others, charging exorbitant rates for public transportation or refusing it outright, forcing them to wear the Jewish star, and so on. 

As things continue to get worse day by day, in the movie there’s a Jewish police officer who comes to the Szpilman’s home and invites Wladek and his brother, Henryk, to join the force. In the movie, Henryk is played by actor Ed Stoppard. 

Adrian Brody’s version of Wladek turns down the offer in disgust, refusing to help the Nazis. After this offer, the movie cuts to a café where Wladek is playing the piano for the Jewish upper class. 

These events in the movie bring up a very sad, but true, fact. Many of the Jews in Poland helped the Nazis by turning on their own. In exchange, the Nazis gave this Jewish police force special treatment. Things like better rations, not shooting them in the street and things like that.  

Of course, all of that special treatment disappeared as soon as the Nazis had what they wanted from them, but for the time covered in the movie the Nazis needed help rounding up the hundreds of thousands of Jews. And since the Nazis wanted to use as few soldiers as they needed, so the rest could be sent to the battlefront elsewhere, they instead devised this plan to build a Jewish police force. 

Here’s where I should mention some controversy around Wladek. In 2013, an author named Agata Tuszynska published the biography of  Jewish singer by the name of Vera Gran. Vera was a popular singer before the war, and claimed she knew Wladek from the Warsaw ghetto. 

And she made some rather harsh accusations against him. As I just mentioned, Vera was a singer before the Holocaust, and said she knew Wladek from their times performing in the Sztuka café, just like the one depicted in the movie. Wladek would play the piano while Vera sang. 

According to Vera, Wladek worked for the Jewish police, or as they called them the Jewish Gestapo, and was one of the men who helped the Nazis transport the Jews to Treblinka. 

The only source of information for this claim is from Vera herself, and it was one she only started to make through her biography. Vera’s biographer Agata, says she left the accusations in her book because she was merely presenting the facts as Vera stated them.  

Wladek’s son, Andrzej, who went so far as to sue Agata for defamation, and explained that his father was never a policeman in the ghetto. He believes the reason Vera made these accusations was because she was bitter at Wladek because Vera herself had been accused of collaborating with the Nazis. 

There’s no proof of Vera’s claims other than, well, Vera’s claims. On the other hand, there’s documents produced by Andrzej’s lawyers that show Wladek’s name was never recorded as a policeman in the ghetto. And considering the amount of top secret documentation we have of what took place in World War II thanks to the fall of the Nazi regime, you’d think if he were in collaboration with the Nazis his name would’ve been recorded somewhere. 

But even though Wladek wasn’t one of the Jewish policemen, there were many who were. There are plenty of documents that show there were Jews who collaborated with the Germans in exchange for their own safety and well-being. 

So the scenes depicted in The Pianist with Jews pushing other Jews around as they board trains are quite realistic. While the movie doesn’t mention it, most of those Jews did end up going to Treblinka, an extermination camp set up by the Nazis in a forest just northeast of Warsaw in 1942. 

In the movie, the Szpilman family, and thousands of other Jews, are herded into a small area to await their turn on board a train destined for Treblinka. Well, we know that’s where they were going. They had no idea where they were bound.  

While they’re waiting, Wladek’s father spends their last 20 zlotys, the Polish currency of the time, on a small piece of caramel. Carefully cutting it into six pieces, the Szpilman family has their final meal together. 

This depiction in the film is very accurate. The final meal, the woman sitting behind them monotonously repeating, “Why did I do it?” over and over again. Even down to the argument that another Jewish man has with Wladek’s father about fighting back. All true. 

After this happens, in the movie, it’s one of the Jewish police officers who saved Wladek’s life when he yanked him from a line for the train. Here he’s separated from his family, never to see them again. 

This, too, is true. One of the policemen who was organizing the Jews onto the train had recognized Wladek in the line. After all, many of the Jewish police frequented the café where Wladek had earned a meager living at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. 

The policeman yanked Wladek out of the line and forced him behind the line and out of sight, just like we saw in the movie. And just like we saw in the movie, Wladek tried to get back—he tried to rush back to his family. He didn’t know his family was marching off to their deaths. And then, in an instant, he did.  

Can you imagine what that realization must be like? After everything they’d been through together. After everything they’ve witnessed and survived together. To be ripped away from your family, only to realize they were heading off to their deaths. And you…what are you to do? 

It’s impossible to contemplate. 

In the movie, Wladek survives by hiding for a while. Then he blends in with Jews who the Nazis use as a slave workforce. Then he escapes and manages to survive through a number of people who help him hide. There’s the small hole in the wall where he hides behind a wooden book case or the small apartment where he holes up with a man in the Polish resistance. 

Again, these are all pretty accurate to what actually happened. Although Wladek’s cover wasn’t broken by the noise of plates shattering on the floor like Adrian Brody’s version did in the film. Instead, it was while he was making soup when he heard a banging at the door. After it wouldn’t stop, and the woman on the other side threatened to call the police, Wladek gathered what he could and tried to sneak out the door.  

Just like in the movie, the woman confronted him and demanded to see his pass. When he couldn’t provide one, the woman began attracting the attention of the others in the apartment house as she shouted at him and tried to block his exit.  

He managed to escape. In the movie, here is where Adrian Brody’s version of Wladek goes to the emergency contact he’s given. As it turns out, this is Dorota’s home and she hides him for a while. 

As we learned earlier, Dorota wasn’t real and this part isn’t true. Instead, Wladek went to the only people he knew in the area. They weren’t really friends, but merely acquaintances.  

But this is a great point to make here, because just like the movie indicates there were many people who helped however they could. Not just with Wladek, but with hiding many Jews from the Germans. And all of it was at the risk of their own lives. After all, the Nazis had made it perfectly clear the penalty for harboring a Jew was death. 

Oh how far it had come from just a few years before when the penalty for being a Jew started with things such as higher prices for public transportation or segregation. By the time 1943 rolled around, anyone even associated with a Jew was subject to death. 

Despite this discrepancy in the movie with Dorota, the gist of the story is still fairly accurate. In the movie, Dorota’s husband gives Wladek an apartment just across the street from a German hospital, something he thinks might keep him safer being so close to the enemy that no one would think to look there. 

Here, according to the movie, he’s looked after by a man with the Polish resistance. Except, as we learn in the film, he doesn’t do a good job taking care of him. Instead when Dorota comes to bid farewell, because she and her husband have to flee Warsaw and go into hiding themselves, she finds Adrian Brody’s version of Wladek sick, jaundiced and suffering from malnutrition. 

The details are a bit different from reality, but the basic gist is pretty accurate. In truth, Wladek was hidden in an apartment just across the street from a German hospital.  

But the incident with the man who failed to look after him well, a man named Szalas who’s played by Andrew Tiernan in the film, happened in the earlier apartment. That’s the one where, in the movie, Adrian Brody’s version of Wladek broke the plates and the woman screamed at him for his papers in the hallway. 

So in truth while Wladek was in the apartment across the hospital, Szalas wasn’t taking care of him. Instead, while he was there he was cared for by a woman named Helena. And just like Dorota did in the movie, Helena did a great job taking care of him. She visited often, bringing food and even arranging for a doctor to sneak in and take a look at him when his health began to waver. 

In the movie, you can tell the war is beginning to shift around this point as there are people revolting against the Germans in the streets outside Wladek’s apartment. Szalas comes to let Wladek know the Americans have landed in France and it’s only a matter of time before they drive the Germans back! 

Of course, we know it wasn’t Szalas who delivered this news, but instead it was Helena. And the resistance shown in the movie is also accurate.  

Today we know of it as the Warsaw Uprising. While the movie doesn’t really focus too much on it, the Uprising began on August 1st, 1944. As the Soviet Army approached Warsaw, the residents of the city started to realize the Nazi’s grip was coming undone.  

Just before the rebellion began in the afternoon of August 1st, Helena paid a final visit to Wladek. She knew of the resistance and that all hell would break loose, and wanted to bid Wladek farewell in case they shouldn’t survive the impending conflict. 

With assistance from the Royal Air Force, the South African Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Force, the Soviet Air Force and what little remained of the Polish Army that had been forced out of their homeland when the Nazis took over, the Polish Underground organized a revolt. 

But the Nazis did more than just fight back. They organized their own revolt of sorts. We’ll never know the exact numbers. But what we do know is that about 8,000 Germans were killed in the Warsaw Uprising compared to 16,000 in the Polish Underground. 

Perhaps the most horrific of all was about 200,000 Polish civilians who were slaughtered in mass executions by the Nazis. For no other reason than the German leadership saw their end was near and were determined to take out as many as they could as they went down. 

While Wladek couldn’t have seen the extent of the murder and chaos around the entire city of Warsaw, just like the movie shows he did see some of it from his apartment window. 

In the movie, Wladek is forced from his apartment after it’s demolished in the Uprising. Or, more specifically, by the blast from a German tank as it shoots back at resistance fighters. He ends up in the attic of an abandoned building where he is found by a German officer named Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, who’s played by Thomas Kretschmann in the film. 

According to the movie, Captain Hosenfeld asks Wladek to play the piano, which he does, and then he does the unthinkable—he helps Wladek survive. Not only does he keep Wladek hidden, but he even offers food and supplies. 

This, too, is all true. Oh, sure, some of the minor details may have been changed for the film, but the core of it is all true. 

It had been two and a half years since Wladek had played the piano, but when the German officer asked him to play he did responded by playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor. That’s the same song you hear in the beginning of the film. 

The officer helped Wladek find a place to hide in the attic and even returned a few days later to give him some bread and jam. 

Just like in the movie, the officer gave Wladek his coat to help him stay warm. And, just like in the movie, this would become an issue a few weeks later when the Soviet Army recaptured Warsaw. 

Although it wasn’t the Soviet Army who came across Wladek first. Instead it was members of the Polish Army. When they saw Wladek in a German coat, they almost shot him before they heard him screaming that he, too, was Polish. 

That gave them just a moment’s pause and when they looked closely, they saw he must not’ve been German. Considering he hadn’t shaved, showered or eaten a decent meal in months he had to have looked quite different than a German soldier. 

The final text on the screen in the movie says that Wladek lived in Warsaw until he died on July 6th, 2000 at the age of 88. Then it says the German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, died in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp in 1952.

As you can probably guess by now, these are both true. In his autobiography, also called The Pianist, there are excerpts from the journal of Captain Wilm Hosenfeld.

They’re mostly letters that were sent back to his family. The last of these was dated August 11th, 1944, and explains how the Germans know they’ve all but lost the war. And Hitler has ordered them to raze Warsaw to the ground.  

For his claims that he helped a Jew, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld’s Soviet captors believed he was lying and beat him many times, eventually leading to his death in the POW camp. 

Wladyslaw Szpilman survived the war. In 1946, he wrote his autobiography while the details of everything that happened was still fresh in his memory. However, Stalin’s government suppressed the book and it was hidden from most of the world’s view for decades until, in 1998, Wladek’s son, Andrzej, published a new version. 

It didn’t take long for the book to become a best seller. In 1999, Roman Polanski started negotiations for the film rights. Sadly, Wladek passed away just like the movie indicates on July 6th, 2000. This was at the height of his popularity due to the book and the film being in the works. 

In an interview with Newsweek, Andrzej said Wladek was in great health. Then, suddenly, he was gone. He feels the success of the book and the talk of the film itself were partly to blame. He went on to say he couldn’t envision his father being able to bear watching his own memories on screen for the duration of the film.

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