A German who has the power to kill him, doesn’t.


An Illusion review by Joan Ellis

In Warsaw, 1939, a prosperous family gathers around the radio to welcome the news that Britain and France have declared war on Nazi Germany.  The celebration is short lived.  Within minutes Nazi soldiers march down the streets, ending one way of life for the Jews of Warsaw and bringing another unimaginable one.  With director Roman Polanski, we will follow “The Pianist” (Adrien Brody) on his journey through this war. 

Every day brings new demands and new punishments at the whim of each passing soldier – usually death by his weapon of choice.  Jews may not use public benches, parks, or coffee shops; they must bow to German officers and walk in the gutter; on their right sleeves they must wear the Star of David for easy identification; By October 1940 they are ordered to move to “the Jewish district.” 

Standing tall in their impeccable clothes, families walk slowly toward the Ghetto, their dignity still intact, their humanity utterly vulnerable.  As the Germans build the brick walls around them that will contain their lives, they stand and stare at both the physical reality and the implications.  They are enveloped in the palpable anguish born of uncertainty.  The only thing they know is that their captors have become sadists.  Circumstance has handed the Nazis the power of life and death for each of them. 

The pianist, Wladislaw Szpilman (Mr. Brody), a cabaret performer, sets his own course toward survival, hiding in whatever small cranny might offer safety.  He witnesses unspeakable brutality and accepts gestures of help from people who will die if their offers are revealed.  Toward the end of their personal war, the Polish Jews are reduced to the deathly silence kindled by terror.   

We watch this single Pole walk down an alley in the kind of gently falling snow that once brought magic where it fell.  Now it falls on barbarians.  The soldiers use flamethrowers and gas to burn Polish bodies in the street, chatting while they work.  The pianist sneaks through the hulls of once beautiful apartments looking for any morsel of food.  A German who has the power to kill him, doesn’t. 

In a marvelous performance, conveying his understanding that his character is merely a witness to history, Adrien Brody never once succumbs to sentiment.  Nor does Roman Polanski.  The movie carries the power of truth that is not believable.  The story neither needs, nor is given, embellishment of any kind.

How many times can we try to understand the tragedy of the persecution of the Jews during World War II?  We should watch every single good film that might shed light on the permission that encouraged collective barbarism. It is the job of survivors to remind us over and over again of how little it takes to turn a cultured nation into a monstrous machine for the destruction of humanity.  Roman Polanski, a survivor himself, has reminded us of this again at just the right time.   


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