The Interrupted Nocturne

     If Roberto Benigni’s name has become synonymous with the Holocaust comedy, perhaps Roman Polanski should get credit for making the first real Holocaust musical—Springtime for Hitler notwithstanding.

But if The Pianist (2002) is indeed a musical—and let us imagine for the sake of argument that it is—then it is a queer sort of musical: a musical of suspended performances, of music displaced and deferred; a musical where the absence of music is as significant as its presence.

The Pianist opens with a partial rendition of Chopin’s C# minor Nocturne (opus posthumous). We hear it over grainy images of Warsaw in 1939, the eve of the Nazi invasion. The music soon reveals itself to be a radio performance by renowned Chopin interpreter and Polish State Radio house pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whose memoir the film is based. As the bombing begins, Szpilman, though a little shaken, refuses to stop playing. But after the frightened sound engineers flee, an explosion blows out the windows of the studio, and he is forced to follow them. We will wait more than two hours—six years of narrative time—for that nocturne to resume.

The interrupted nocturne forms one template for the way diegetic music is used in the film. After the Jews are herded into the ghetto, Szpilman turns to playing piano in the ghetto café. At one point, a well-dressed man at a nearby table asks him to pause in order to better hear the coins he tosses onto the tabletop, listening for which are counterfeit. The request is graciously made, but Szpilman is clearly exasperated. In a later scene, street musicians are forced to perform for Nazi soldiers, and the bystanders, many of them famished and exhausted, are forced to dance—until the traffic they have been waiting on finishes passing, the gates open, and the grotesque carnival is abruptly halted.

By the time Szpilman escapes the ghetto, his family has been sent to the camps, and the only remaining piano—the one in the café—stands silent, abandoned. Playing it is out of the question; instead, he will hide beneath the riser on which it stands until the immediate threat of Nazi violence has passed.

Once Szpilman’s Warsaw city odyssey begins, the trope of interrupted music is replaced by a slightly different one, of music displaced, deferred in space rather than in time. Wherever Szpilman is, music isn’t—or, if music is, it is imaginary. The Bach cello prelude, performed by Dorota, the woman Wladyslaw still loves but who is now married, unattainable, overheard from another room, and then glimpsed through a half-open door. The piano he hears tinkling away in the apartment next door to his first safehouse. The music he hears in his head, that ideal space where the Nazis can’t go, when he opens the lid of the piano in the second safehouse, positions his hands over the keyboard … and then the sweeping Grand Polonaise swells on the soundtrack, audible only to Szpilman and to us as he moves his fingers above the keys, his face beaming. After this second apartment is destroyed in the Warsaw uprising, Szpilman hides in the bombed-out hospital across the street. Starving, freezing, he plays an imaginary keyboard, humming his music quietly to himself. No more Grand Polonaise, and no more soundtrack. The man is almost defeated; the music is almost gone.

As for nondiegetic music, its infrequency—the occasional, restrained use of orchestral music; the lonely clarinet melody that punctuates some of the most tragic moments in the film (such as when Szpilman escapes the trains to the camps to find the ghetto deserted and pillaged)—makes it that much more poignant when it does appear, and the silences between that much more significant. (In the documentary included on the DVD, the set designer describes the filmmakers’ efforts to wash out the color as the story gets bleaker. This “visual silence” is analogous to the disappearance of music, as well as suggesting the moral silence of the Holocaust.)

So what happens to music deferred? It explodes, of course—in this case, in the climactic (if abridged) performance of Chopin’s G minor Ballade for Hosenfeld, the German officer who discovers Szpilman scrounging for food in a ruined home after the Nazis have leveled the city.* It’s a moment of catharsis hardly equaled in cinema, a spiritual homecoming that signals the film’s approaching resolution more clearly than either the German defeat or Szpilman’s rescue by Soviet troops. At that moment, we know the nocturne will resume, closing the six-year wound of the Holocaust, ending the long night suspended between broken night-songs.

It is difficult to imagine a Chopin composition more suited to the moment than the G minor Ballade. It has just the right mix of searching angst and triumphant answer, of defiance and melancholy, and the sort of bold, emphatic finale that Chopin only matched in a couple of his scherzos. The C# minor Nocturne, the piece Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld, would have been far too ruminative for such a moment—the music of a man reminiscing about loss, not one holding on desperately to his humanity. Of course, as long as he was going to deviate from the memoir, Polanski could have chosen the “Revolutionary” etude—that grandiose, martial volley of notes about an older attack on Warsaw, and about the heroic Polish resistance. It would be hard to think of a worse choice. This is not a moment of patriotic resistance and nationalism, but of individual human resilience. (How Polanski to use a cracked version of the etude instead, in The Tenant!) Even the appearance of the “Moonlight” sonata late in the film—played, one supposes, by German officers—sounds weirdly lugubrious measured against the incessant cruelty of the previous two hours. In contrast, the Ballade chafes at the margins of the narrative and the cinematic frame, threatening to spill out of the diegetic world.

*

I will be chided for calling The Pianist a musical at the beginning of this post, and I admit this was an exaggeration meant to catch your attention—you know, the sorts of shoddy tricks we teach our writing students. But I think there is an element of truth in this assertion, one that, even if we don’t put The Pianist in the same genre as, say, Singin’ in the Rain, does allow us to think about the film differently. When it begins, with the staticky Nocturne, what should be (non-diegetic) title music reveals itself to be a radio transmission of Szpilman’s soon-to-be-interrupted performance. (There are no titles, anyway. They appear at the end, during a live performance of the Grand Polonaise: here, the “walk out of the theater” music is actually the end of the story.) Other times, we are unsure whether the music is “on” or “off” stage—the “Moonlight” sonata, for example—or we hear music on the soundtrack which only Szpilman hears. The displaced music is another example: it is happening in the story, but outside the frame. I think it is partly this blurring of diegetic and non-diegetic music that energizes the Ballade. As in a musical, the performance is at once inside and outside the diegesis: it draws its power from both deferred narrative resolution (the horizontal), and from its status as a musical event independent of the surrounding narrative (the vertical). In fact, these two sources seem to feed each other: the performance is energized by its function as catharsis, while the narrative is energized by the ekphrastic brilliance of the performance.

In this light, the questions, “Could Szpilman really have played that Ballade after all he had endured, and after so long without touching a keyboard?” and “Wouldn’t it make sense for the piano to be out of tune?” are moot. Here we have this hobbling, hollow-eyed tramp licking out dirty pots, a sliver of a human being, a ragdoll, Molloy lost in bombed-out Warsaw. But the moment he sits down at the piano bench and claws out the first climbing octaves of the Ballade, all of this ceases to matter. As in Dreyer’s Ordet, reality is superseded by cinema; the violation of the possible only confirms a new order of (cinematic) reality which does not cancel the reality before it, but rather transforms it, raising it to a higher level.

Maybe it’s that, since by this point in the film there is nothing so terrible we can’t believe it—a child beaten to death trying to crawl under the wall back into the ghetto, an old man thrown from a window in his wheelchair, a young woman shot in the forehead for asking a question—so there is no act of heroism that can seem out of place. In such circumstances, everything about humanity is magnified, the potential for generosity and heroism as much as cruelty.

*

The Pianist’s use of music and silence should be considered not only in terms of genre, but in terms of Polanski’s oeuvre. About halfway through, the film shifts radically away from the standard visual rhetoric of German cruelty and Jewish suffering (albeit taken to new heights by Polanski’s visceral style), and toward an apartment horror story very much in the vein of Polanski’s trio of great horror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976). In each case, the overarching atmosphere of dread is underscored through the sounds (and occasionally sights) of other lives impinging on the central character’s: through walls thin enough to see shadows behind, old doors hidden behind bureaus, and the grotesquely-distorting glass of peepholes. Piano music haunts the buildings where each of these three films is set: “Für Elyse” in Rosemary’s Baby; the descending major scale with one dreadfully wrong note played over and over in Repulsion; and the similarly repeated failure to play the opening figure of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” etude in The Tenant. (N.B.: I was tempted to call this post “Other Pianos, Other Rooms.”) In two of these films, the piano contributes not just to the ambience, but to our appreciation of the protagonists’ increasingly disturbed minds: in Repulsion, the cracked mirror of tonality reflects the oppressive monotony of life for Carole (Catherine Deneuve), a catatonically-repressed hairdresser; in The Tenant, a mangled Chopin etude suggests the Polish emigree’s inability to find place and identity, and his subsequent morbid fascination with the identity of his apartment’s previous tenant. And Rosemary’s Baby? Heard through a wall, even a lullaby can sound sinister … just as a phone conversation, glimpsed through a doorway, the half-seen body the visual analog of a conversation only half-heard, half-understood, becomes, in Polanski’s universe, suspicious.

Unlike its horror-film progenitors, the music in The Pianist is neither the reflection of a fractured consciousness nor the sign of an actual, threatening Other (even, I would argue, when the music is played by a likely enemy). It is rather the only solace the protagonist knows in the suffocating terror of occupied Warsaw. The trajectory of the film is not the slow dissolution of the walls of consciousness which keep the threatening Other (real or imagined) at bay, but the struggle to survive in silence—the physical, emotional, even moral silence which one internalizes as a survival mechanism—until those walls can be broken down, and Szpilman can be reunited with his beloved Chopin. Watching The Pianist reminds us just how sparing Polanski’s use of music often is. Many of his films seem to prefer silence; some positively crave it. In Repulsion, for instance, noise, musical or other, is always a violation: buzzers, incessantly ticking clocks, crashing cymbals, and the frenetic jazz that follows Carole around London.

With The Pianist, it’s as though Polanski had finally revealed his childhood experience as a Holocaust survivor to be the trauma underlying so much of his cinema. For forty years it had been displaced onto the apartment buildings of New York, London and Paris … as well as onto the fatalistic narratives set in Los Angeles and Cornwall. In this regard, perhaps the chief irony of the film is that, while the phantom pianist of Polanski’s horror movies has finally stepped out from behind the wall, he finds that he has not brought his music with him.

The Pianist is not the only one of Polanski’s films framed by performances. Death and the Maiden begins with a snippet of the Amadeus Quartet performing the title piece, and closes with a complete performance of the quartet’s first movement. Like The Pianist, the rest of the film is almost entirely music-less. Death and the Maiden and The Pianist are narratives about silence—the ethical silence of sanctioned atrocity; the historical silence of active forgetting; the silence of the victim in the face of state terror. But if Death and the Maiden is a manual for the misappropriation of art in the service of evil, The Pianist never allows music to be so sullied. (But then it’s not a movie about Wagner.)

Who would have thought Polanski would return to Warsaw, the site of the trauma, for a rare “happy” ending, the mighty resolution of the Grand Polonaise, complete with pornographic close-ups of the pianist’s hands? How different from the irresolution of the concluding performance in Death and the Maiden: the power relationships in the positions and the play of glances between torturer, victim, and attorney; the sense that nothing has changed except knowledge, and that knowledge changes nothing. “I want my Schubert back,” says Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) in Death and the Maiden. “My favorite composer.” Does she get him back? More broadly, can art ever be reclaimed from its appropriation by and for terror? I’m not sure. Most of Polanski’s great films end this way: without real cadences. But the The Pianist most certainly restores to Szpilman his Chopin. And ours.

 

* The Nocturne Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld is a far less technically demanding piece than the Ballade. Szpilman’s memoir also reveals that the piano was indeed out of tune. (My argument notwithstanding, I sincerely doubt Sony would release a soundtrack with either the Ballade or the Nocturne played on an out-of-tune piano.) The question of the historical accuracy of the film’s beginning is less clear, at least to me, sinceI haven’t read the memoir. According to the synopses I looked at (on szpilman.net and, of course, Wikipedia), the C# minor Nocturne was part of the program Szpilman played for the last Polish State Radio broadcast in 1939. However, it is not indicated that the performance was interrupted, or that the station itself was damaged. Rather, it was the power station on which the broadcast depended that was destroyed. Interestingly, in the Wikipedia entry on Szpilman, the film’s dramatization of the event—the station bombed, the performance abandoned in medias res—and Szpilman’s memoir seem to have been conflated.

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