Monday, June 27, 2005

The Pianist

Finally watched The Pianist this weekend, the movie Adrien Brody won his well-deserved Oscar for. (Of course I’m sure I forgot who else was nominated immediately after the show, but it doesn’t matter now.) What was so wonderful about his performance was how understated it was. It wasn’t typically over-the-top Oscary in my opinion and managed to be incredibly powerful. But every time I see a Holocaust movie, I find myself as fascinated as though I’d never heard of it before and want to see everything ever made about it – it just seems unthinkable that human beings are capable of, you know, genocide. It makes me wonder if evil really exists – because I truly want to believe people are not born evil – but what the hell is going on in the collective minds of people wherein it becomes a good idea to erase entire populations? What was interesting to me about this movie was that Polanski (and Szpielman, whose memoir it was based on) didn’t shy away from the gray area of humanity – it seems like Szpielman’s life is basically saved by a Nazi at the end because… he was moved by his music. (This was a particularly heartbreaking scene, where Szpielman, utterly starved, freezing, and broken down, plays for the Nazi.) You know that that guy had to have been responsible for any number of deaths – so why save one for any reason, and, what does that say about that person? Also equally fascinating was the behind the scenes on the DVD because I knew Polanski himself had survived the Holocaust at a very young age, and in fact he talks about it quite a bit and how it informed this film in a number of ways, including the incredible details. (I had read his memoir sixty hundred million years ago – Ben’s new number – it’s a good one, right? – and ever since then I stopped caring what the real story is about the underage girl because Polanski is so bright and talented and charming – still elfinly cute even now – that he’s hard not to like. He’s no Michael Jackson.) There was one scene where he’s starving and finds a big can of pickles and can’t find anything to open it with and just keeps carrying it around even though it’s obviously heavy and he’s so frail – and I cried out at one point, “Oh my god, please, just open the can already!” The other thing that’s really fascinating about it is the survival mechanism that this man, and obviously many others, perhaps people we know, have. I doubt I have it to that degree. How do you lose your entire family and go on? Polanski says, “If you have a passion for something, like he did for music and I did for film, you just do.” I’m not sure my passion for writing would get me through the loss of my family or make me fight an old lady in the street for her last bowl of gruel (and then eat it off the ground when it fell), but I realize people are capable of going to incredible lengths to survive. Well, I could go on all day about all this.

3 comments:

DAM said...

I've grappled with thoughts about the Holocaust since I was a kid. The use and abuse of people. The will to live. How to live when one has endured such a ... don't even know what word to use.

I know a few Holocaust survivors and each has a different response, as each is a different person. One woman embraces each day of life because she knows there is beauty in each day. One man can't enjoy another day of his life because he survived and his family didn't.

I've probably watched every documentary made about the Holocaust because I try to understand it, as if such a thing could be understood.

There is another phenomenon related to the Holocaust...the children of survivors. Having grown up with a parent who lived the tragedy, they have their own experiences related to it. The woman I mentioned above told me that she didn't even realize how tightly she grasped her son's hand when she took him to the bus stop every day. One morning, when he was only 7, he told his mother that she needn't hold him so tight. The Nazis wouldn't kill him.

The man above couldn't dance at his daughter's wedding. He wouldn't allow himself to feel joy. Can you imagine how his daughter felt?

I could go on and on because my thoughts about it go on and on, and I know I will never have answers.

Betsy said...

Oh, I got the chills reading that, Debra - the second paragraph in particular was of interest to me. I love thinking of the woman embracing life because that is how I hope to respond should some kind of tragedy hit me. But the man's reaction is completely understandable as well. An elderly man in my friend's building, survived the Holocaust only to commit suicide in his eighties. What could have possibly been worse than what he'd already gone through?

DAM said...

What could have been worse, from my limited understanding, would be the nightly dreams and the daily memories he carried with him.

I know it seems incomprehensible, but some live with it daily, nightly and forever. It colors every experience for some.

The woman I described above, a woman who finds as much joy as she can in everything, grew up in France. She cannot, will not return there. Too many memories. Images of her parents being stolen from her. She told me that she never trusted again that life could be safe. There was nothing of which she could be sure. She married a survivor because only he could understand it all.

She also told me she was a citizen of the world. I thought it a beautiful sentiment until she explained that she felt she didn't belong anywhere. France was no longer home. The U.S. was the place to which she escaped.

Her mother, a victim of Mengele's experiments, returned a happy woman. Her father, previously a man of joy, was a man of anger. (So unusual for an entire family to survive.) There is no rhyme or reason.

Figure this out...this woman lectures kids in low income homes, the blind, anybody with a challenge in life, and asks them to look at her life and see what they can achieve. So, she carries with her joy and sorrow. It is not one or the other for her...it is both, as I suppose it is for most of us in life.