Arts, Media, and Entertainment

Melody of Faith

Among the nominees for Best Picture in this year's Academy Awards is The Pianist. The movie, which has been nominated for six other Oscars in addition to Best Picture, tells the story of one man's survival during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Like most films, The Pianist takes liberties with the historical facts. Unfortunately, these liberties include one key fact that made the story, and the film that tells it, possible. The Pianist is based on composer Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir. Szpilman feels little affinity for his fellow Jews, even after the Germans forced them into the Warsaw ghetto. He only avoids the fate of the rest of his family -- who perished in Treblinka -- through a series of improbable events: being selected to work on a construction crew and then afterwards as a clerk. Then comes the most improbable turn of all: While searching for food, Szpilman is stopped by a German officer who asks him, of all things, his profession. After Szpilman answers, the officer takes him to a piano where Szpilman plays Chopin. The German then hides and feeds Szpilman for the remainder of the war. As Michael Oren wrote in the New Republic, the image we are given is one of a "monster transformed by music." That image, as Oren tells us, is a "misrepresentation." The German soldier in question was named Wilm Hosenfeld. Hosenfeld was "an ardent Catholic who abhorred Nazism." In his diary, he wrote that the war happened because "humanity had to be shown where its godlessness was taking it." Our "denial of God's commandments" and our unwillingness to "love one another" condemned us to die "innocent and guilty alike." This faith is why Hosenfeld "repeatedly risked his life to rescue others, Poles and Jews, from extermination." This is why these survivors, including Szpilman, tried to get Hosenfeld released from a Soviet labor camp, where he died in 1952. The only suggestion in the film of Hosenfeld's real motivation is when he gives Szpilman his coat and tells him, "You must survive. God wills it." But without knowing about his faith, the audience can't possibly make sense of that remark. Why must Szpilman survive? Because he can play Chopin flawlessly or because he is made in the image of God? In suggesting the first answer, the filmmakers are following the Romantic ideal of the artist as a visionary, prophet, and even redeemer. The irony is that no one better articulated this vision than the German composer Richard Wagner -- Hitler's favorite composer. This is not to say that Wagner or Romanticism should be blamed for the crimes of the Third Reich. Of course, they should not. But it is a reminder that the kind of heroism displayed by people like Hosenfeld and other "righteous Gentiles" was, more often than not, a function of their faith. Risking their lives to rescue others was a matter of love for neighbor, not a refined aesthetic. Szpilman knew this, and he pointed it out in his memoir. Unfortunately, his adapters were not as careful with the facts. As a result, a film that was supposed to shed light on the Holocaust leaves viewers in the dark about what they saw. And you might want to tell your friends who watch the Academy Awards the real story behind this film -- very different from the one they will see on the screen. For further reading and information: Michael B. Oren, "Schindler's Liszt," The New Republic, 17 March 2003. Jonathan V. Last, "A Pre-Pre-Oscar Malaise," Weekly Standard, 10 January 2003. Roberto Rivera y Carlo, "Duty, Honor, and the Movies," Boundless, 13 March 2003. Rebecca Phillips, "In a World without Heroes," Beliefnet, 18 March 2003. Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Pianist (Picador, 2002). Read Chuck Colson's List of 50 Insightful Films for suggestions on good movies to rent, including children's films. Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Baker Book House, 2000).


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary