When I was ten or so, I got interested in Holocaust literature. I think it’s because my teacher read us Daniel’s Story in class. Anyway, from that time on, I read lots of books written for children and teenagers about the Holocaust. I even read some written for adults. But that all stopped when I was sixteen. That year, my history teacher showed us footage of the liberation of the concentration camps. Reading all those books hadn’t prepared me for what the Holocaust really was. I hadn’t understood what it really meant, what it looked like when people were slowly being starved to death and being killed indiscriminately. But now I do, and now Holocaust movies are hard for me to watch. I don’t want to believe that people could treat other people that way. At the same time, even though they can be so terrible, movies about the Holocaust can also be testaments to human goodness and resilience.
So what’s the story? Wladyslaw Szpilman is a young pianist living and working in Warsaw in 1939. After Germany invades the country, Szpilman, who is Jewish, lives through the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto.
The Good: Adrien Brody. His performance is heartbreaking. His transformation from a carefree young musician to a starving, terrified shadow of a man is amazing. I cried as I watched him trying to open his can of food. Incredible.
I loved the costume design. It helped to tell the story in way I haven’t often seen. Wladyslaw starts out wearing fashionable suits, but as his life gets harder and harder, his clothes change, too. The contrasting clothing of the people in the ghetto also highlights the differences of the people. Some were dressed poorly; others had furs. Each of those people in the ghetto had a different story before they were forced together, and their clothes remind us of that. They aren’t just faceless people or numbers, but people with various pasts who faced a tragic future together.
The production design made me sad not just for the Jewish people, but for the Poles, also. Their capital was destroyed; many people died. I’m not sure how they were able to show such widespread destruction, but it was devastating to see a city in rubble.
The Bad: I know I’m not supposed to say this, especially about a Holocaust movie, but there are a couple of boring stretches in this movie. From the time Wladyslaw is separated from his family until he stops living in empty apartments, it’s not the most exciting movie. I suppose it really must have been boring trying to live silently in an apartment that is supposed to be empty, but it doesn’t make for thrilling cinema.
The Ugly: Roman Polanski was a Holocaust survivor who escaped from the Krakow ghetto, and he witnessed some horrific things. He doesn’t pull his punches in this movie, and so there is some very graphic and shocking violence. I don’t feel like it’s gratuitous in any way; it’s what happened. But that means there are some parts that are very difficult to watch.
Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (Adrien Brody); best director; best writing, adapted screenplay.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best cinematography; best costume design; best film editing.