Adrien Brody becomes the youngest 
"Best Actor" recipient in Oscar history. 
Photo Credit: AFP PHOTO John Mabanglo/NewsCom


Oscar 2003:

Jan Sounds Some
Alarms about

No one expected it. Although some film critics may have lobbied for THE PIANIST, I can’t think of one who actually predicted that it would win any Academy Awards. We can speculate about why it happened, but first we must deal with the fact of it. A month from now, no one will remember the surprise. A year from now, no one will remember the controversy. But the results will always be with us: on March 23rd THE PIANIST took home three major Oscars (for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay & Best Director).

Personally, I’m troubled. I saw the film last December, but put my concerns aside. After all, pragmatically speaking, THE PIANIST was a box office flop, so why make a fuss? But last Friday, I saw a huge ad in the Chicago Sun-Times with the headline “Oscar’s Triumphant Surprise is Now the Movie Phenomenon that has Everyone Talking,” & the tag line ”Experience the triumph of the human spirit.” That same day, my USA Today announced that the film would be available on 900 screens nationwide, up from 540 the prior week. Sure enough, by Monday the Internet Movie Database was reporting that box office revenue had almost tripled in the week after the Oscars.

Some would say: “It’s only a movie,” but it’s a movie based on a real autobiography, & it’s a movie many assume to be substantially true. Two nights before the Oscars, for example, THE PIANIST received this year’s “Harry Award” from the History Channel (that’s “Harry” as in Herodotus). Here’s the capsule summary written by Michael Wilmington, the chief film critic for the Chicago Tribune, my hometown’s largest newspaper:

Like most of Polanski's best film work (CHINATOWN, REPULSION), THE PIANIST is a nightmare--but based so scrupulously on fact (Szpilman's memoir) and filmed with such a strict lack of sentimentality and such brilliant moviemaking that it becomes a definitive statement on the themes of war, inhumanity and art's redemption. (1/3/03)

But THE PIANIST is not “based… scrupulously on fact.” While the drama is tightly focused on Szpilman (his experiences & his observations), there are two primary characters in supporting roles: Dorota, a Polish woman, and Wilm Hosenfeld, a German man. As readers of the autobiography already know, the character of Dorota is a complete invention & the character of Hosenfeld is a complete distortion.

Nor did I find THE PIANIST “filmed with… a strict lack of sentimentality.” There were many moments I found sentimental. (From my dictionary: “resulting from or colored by emotion rather than reason or realism.”) For example, at the very moment that the Szpilman family is being herded from the Umschlagplatz into the cattle cars (bound for Treblinka), Polanski has Wladyslaw turn to his youngest sister Halina & say “I wish I knew you better.” Ronald Harwood (the screenwriter) didn’t get this bit from Szpilman.

An adaptation will never be exactly the same as its source, so I’m not especially bothered by the fact that Polanski created a love object for Wladyslaw, or that he allowed him some warmth toward his sister. Even though I don’t especially like the way these particular scenes are handled, I probably wouldn’t even mention them if I weren’t required to refute the two claims, historical accuracy & lack of sentimentality, which appear over & over again in reviews such as Wilmington’s. 

But I am extremely concerned about the false characterization of Wilm Hosenfeld. Michael Oren (author of SIX DAYS OF WAR: June 1967 & the Making of the Modern Middle East) published a long review in The New Republic, which, based on my reading of Szpilman’s memoir is substantially correct, if a bit overwrought. Here’s Oren’s conclusion:

All that we know about Wilm Hosenfeld from Szpilman’s book – his long-standing opposition to Hitler, his courage, his values – is withheld from the film. Instead we are given a figure half Hosenfeld’s age, a senior staff commander & Third Reich poster boy, a Nazi. Thus duped, we can easily believe that had Szpilman identified himself as a spot welder, say, instead of a pianist, Hosenfeld would have shot him instantly. Ignorant of the real Hosenfeld’s character, we can see him as a monster transformed by music… even for Nazis there is hope. Music – disembodied, immaculate, ineffable – can redeem them. (3/17/03)

In other words, the real Szpilman lived long enough to tell his tale because fate placed him in the hands of a genuinely good man (not a corrupt man like Oskar Schindler who became a hero through a weird combination of gamesmanship & egotism). So why are so many critics, like Wilmington, swayed by the false implication that art in some way “redeems” the Holocaust?

I didn’t have an answer until I saw another critical favorite, NOWHERE IN AFRICA, the German film which received the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year. 
The two films are very different, but they have one essential element in common: in both films (both based on memoirs) Jews who survive the Holocaust “go home” at the end, & presumably return with ease to their normal (that is, pre-Nazi) lives. 

This is not the ending we’re used to seeing in films about the Holocaust. Prior films have showed us the surviving “remnant” fighting its way to Palestine & helping to establish the state of Israel. I’m not a historian, so I’m not qualified to assess the truth of cinematic representations, but as a film critic, I am suggesting that these two films, which have already been so influential in Europe, may be the beginning of a “paradigm shift” in cinematic representation of the Holocaust. We need to stop & think before we tacitly accept this new model for such an important topic.

In 1948, reporter Ruth Gruber published a book called DESTINATION PALESTINE: The Story of the Haganah Ship Exodus 1947, which novelist Leon Uris turned into the best-seller EXODUS. In 1960, director Otto Preminger & screenwriter Dalton Trumbo turned Uris’s novel into a film. (In 2000, Ruth Gruber’s life was turned into the television biopic HAVEN.) The 1999 edition of Gruber’s book (now called EXODUS 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation) begins as follows:

World War II was ending. The armies of liberation stormed Auschwitz & other death camps. Some of the soldiers vomited, others fainted, at the sight of the walking skeletons & the corpses piled like stacks of wood. In the world outside the camps, there were many who assumed that the survivors would rush out of the gates, breathe free air, & live happily ever after. Nothing was further from the truth.

Those who could stand on their feet, & those who were healed, tried to return to their own homes. But the ghosts of their lost families hung over the streets. When they knocked on the doors of their homes, neighbors or strangers stared at them: “What? Are you still alive? Why didn’t they turn YOU into a bar of soap?” In Kielce, Poland, 42 Jews who had returned home were murdered in a 1946 pogrom.

The darkest chapter of history was still not over.

They knew they could no longer live in the towns & villages & shtetls where they had lived. So they went west—to Germany, the death land, because the Americans were there & the Americans would help them get to Palestine.

Yale Professor Deborah Dash Moore has recently published an excellent article called “EXODUS: Real to Reel to Real” which shows the stages by which the Exodus 1947 (a real boat which was actually turned back by the British) became the cinematic touchstone for popular American support for the new state of Israel. According to Dash:

The central theme of EXODUS links the creation of the Jewish state with the rescue of Holocaust survivors… By drawing upon a genre familiar to Americans [the Western], EXODUS gave Israel a persona. The movie placed the figurative “white hat” on Israel’s head, certifying the state, its leaders & citizens, as “good guys.” (Page 212)

The influence of the film was so pervasive that Dash is able to show how American media reported the Six Day War in 1967 in terms of images & characters from EXODUS. For example, both Life Magazine & the New York Times did profiles of (then) General Yitzhak Rabin in which he is explicitly identified as the prototype for the character of Ari Ben Canaan (the hero played by Paul Newman in the film).

Not everyone went along. Dash quotes Philip Roth (from his 1975 article “Some New Jewish Stereotypes”) as follows:

A crime to which there is no adequate human response, no grief, no compassion, no vengeance that is sufficient, seems in part then, to have been avenged. (Page 219)

Nevertheless, this cinematic link between the survivors of the Holocaust & the founders of Israel remained solid for over 50 years. Most notably, in 1993 Steven Spielberg chose to end SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) in Israel, where the real Oskar Schindler is, in fact, now buried.

But if we believe THE PIANIST & NOWHERE IN AFRICA, all of the above is just Zionist propaganda. In THE PIANIST, Poles watch the packing of the Warsaw Ghetto with tears, provide food & weapons to the Jews within the walls, support the Jews who manage to escape, cheer for the Jews who resist, & welcome the return of the Jews who survive. 

In NOWHERE IN AFRICA, the British are just as anti-Semitic as the Germans (minus those few Germans who really were Nazis, of course). Asked why he wants to return to Germany after the war, Walter Redlich proclaims: “I’m proud to be an idealist because it means I believe in mankind. This country [British Kenya] saved us but it isn’t our country.” There is no mention of Palestine as an option. There is no hint that the British Empire is crumbling, that India is about to achieve independence, or that Kenya itself is only a few years away from the Mau Mau uprising. Walter takes his family back to Germany because it is “our country,” & furthermore “The English don’t like me.”

No doubt the historical facts lie somewhere in between EXODUS, on the one hand, & THE PIANIST, on the other, but my concern is not historical fact. My concern is cinematic mythology. My gut tells me that Europeans are trying to sell a self-serving story about the Holocaust right now, & we should be skeptical before we exchange one simplistic view for another. As Moore’s discussion of EXODUS shows, many people think they learn “history” at the movies (particularly movies that are based on true stories, especially when those movies bask in the glow of prestigious awards like the Oscar), & these “history lessons” can have political consequences.

Circling back to the starting point for these reflections, I think the fact that THE PIANIST won three major Oscars on 3/23/03 was a total fluke. I think the reality is that no one knew what to do about GANGS OF NEW YORK. Everyone wanted Martin Scorsese to succeed in the abstract, but almost no one liked the movie itself. Read the reviews & you will find prominent film critics twisting themselves into pretzel shapes trying to find something positive to say. Real people hated the film & most Academy voters are, after all, real people. Sure, some are famous now & some were famous once, but most are crafts people (e.g., costume designers, make-up artists, lighting directors, sound technicians, & lots & lots of character actors). 

Furthermore, in their zeal to get Scorsese the Oscars denied him in the past, critics bent over backwards to discredit CHICAGO, the clear audience favorite (which had already grossed over $150 million in the United States alone by Oscar night).

So in a year overshadowed by economic distress, terrorism, & imminent war (which became real in between the time the votes were cast & the awards distributed), the voters, told by most critics that their top choice was low-brow fluff, turned to THE PIANIST. After all, no one can deny that THE PIANIST has a serious subject & no one can deny that Polanski, passed over for ROSEMARY’S BABY & CHINATOWN, is a serious director. And that’s how I think it happened. And now we must deal with the fact of it, because now lots of people will see it.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (4/5/03)


For related articles on FILMS FOR TWO®, follow these links:


What did we know & when did we know it?

The Case for CHICAGO as Best Picture of 2002

Tribute to Roman Polanski

Tribute to Martin Scorsese

To order the books mentioned in this article, follow these links:

by Wladyslaw Szpilman

EXODUS 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation 
by Ruth Gruber

ENTERTAINING AMERICA: Jews, Movies, & Broadcasting
Edited by J. Hoberman & Jeffrey Shandler
(includes Deborah Dash Moore article)

Note: Stephanie Zweig’s “autobiographical novel,” the source for NOWHERE IN AFRICA, is not yet available in English.

FINAL NOTE: For the record, I think too many Holocaust movies have been made since the release of SCHINDLER’S LIST in 1993, & it may be time to give the topic a rest for a while. See my chat with Joyce Miller Bean about African-American reactions to BELOVED for more of my own thoughts about this.

For excellent analyses by real historians, see:

By Yehuda Bauer

By Peter Novick

For the most profound discussion of this topic that I know of, see:

By Philip Roth

In this “first chapter” of the ongoing saga of Nathan Zuckerman, Zuckerman decides that a young woman acquaintance named Amy Bellette is really Anne Frank. Alive, well, & living in New England in the mid-50s, Amy learns that her father not only survived Auschwitz, but he returned to Amsterdam & published her diary. Does she reach out to Otto Frank or does she keep her secret?