Music was exclusively his politics

An interview with Halina Szpilman, widow of Władysław Szpilman

17 October 2014

Filip Mazurczak

Roman Polański’s 2002 film “The Pianist” received a plethora of well-deserved awards, including three Oscars and the coveted Palm d’Or at Cannes, and has since become a staple of historical cinema. It shows the Nazi occupation of Warsaw – the first bombs falling on the city in 1939; the herding of the city’s Jewish population into a ghetto, its liquidation and brave but tragic uprising; the city-wide Warsaw Uprising, when Varsovians stood up against the occupying Germans while the Red Army sat on the other side of the Vistula, urging them to fight while consciously failing to aid them; and the subsequent destruction that bruised Poland’s capital more than any city during the Second World War – through the eyes of Władysław Szpilman, a Polish pianist of Jewish ancestry, who survived due to good luck, a strong will to live, and the help of brave and selfless people.

Polański himself was a guest at the Szpilmans’ house when he was in Warsaw for the Polish premiere of his 1999 horror The Ninth Gate starring Johnny Depp, with music written by compatriot Wojciech Kilar, a friend of the Szpilman family. Ms. Szpilman recalls Polański and her husband chatting and joking for hours, yet the latter never thought about making a film about him. In fact, he wasn’t even aware of Szpilman’s wartime experiences.

Since the collapse of Communism and fading of censorship in Poland in 1989, Polański had long wanted to make a film in Poland for the first time since 1962, when he left the country after his Knife in the Water propelled the young filmmaker to the cover of Time magazine and had him leave for the West. He was particularly in making a film dealing with the country’s experiences under Communism or Nazi and Soviet occupation.

Polański himself survived the Krakow Ghetto and the rest of the war hiding among Polish Gentile peasants who took him in, so Szpilman’s experiences were close to the director. Sometime after the visit to the Szpilman home, Polański received a call from a friend who had stumbled across The Pianist at a London airport bookstore. He said he had the perfect material for his next film.

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