Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Pianist

The Pianist

The Pianist (2000)

From the Wladyslaw Szpilman Official Hompage:

"I looked like a wild man," he recalls. "I was dirty, unshaven, my hair was long. The German found me when I was in the ruins of someone's kitchen, looking for food. I found out later -- this isn't in the book -- that he was looking for toothpaste, but no matter. When he saw me, he asked me what on earth was I doing there ... What could I say? I couldn't say that I was Jewish, that I was hiding, that I had been in these ruins for months. I told him that this was my old flat, that I had come back to see what was left ..."

So begins Szpilman's account of how, in the final weeks of the Second World War, having escaped the Warsaw Getto and survived months of hiding, he was rescued by a German: CaptainWilm Hosenfeld discovered him, ascertained that he was a pianist -- to convince him, Szpilman played Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor on abattered, out-of-tune piano -- and without much further ado found him a better hiding place. "He noticed something I had not seen: that just beneath the roof there was a tiny attic ..." Together, they made sure Szpilman could climb into it, and pull up the ladder afterwards.

Over the subsequent weeks, the German officer regularly brought bread to the Jewish musician, and news from the Front. Finally, in December 1944, he left him with the words: "The war will be over by spring at the latest." As Szpilman tells it now, the story sounds like a coincidence, a once-in-a-life-time piece of luck. In fact, it is merely one episode in an extraordinary story of survival, recently published in English as The Pianist. Wladyslaw Szpilman, already a famous musician and composer when the war broke out -- Poles of a certain generation still know the words to his popular songs -- was rescued not only by a German but by a Jewish policeman, who pulled him out of a queue of people boarding trains for Treblinka; by his talent, which kept him alive in the starving Warsaw Ghetto; and by, in his own estimate, no less than 20 Poles who smuggled him out of the Ghetto and then hid him in their flats, knowing that they and their families could be sentenced to death for helping a Jew.

In the end he survived for several months alone, perhaps the only person alive in the burned out ruins of Warsaw, drinking water frozen in the bathtubs of empty flats and eating whatever he could find hidden in destroyed kitchens. Written in flat, almost emotionless prose, The Pianist evokes the strange mix of horror and elation Szpilman must have felt at that time. His whole family was dead, his city was in ruins, and yet, against all possible odds, he remained alive. Both the book, and the man himself, are also devoid of any desire for vengeance.

And from ArtForum -- Damon Krukowski on Nam June Paik:

Nam June Paik is often pictured with an instrument: banging his head on a piano; dragging a violin along the ground; stretching a string across his back, to be bowed by cellist Charlotte Moorman. What these images share with many of Paik's multimedia works is the sense of a dreamed art -- they represent a music that isn't heard, necessarily, but whose effect might be even greater than music that is.


In Duett: Paik/Takis (1979), Paik's Romantic bent is given freer play, as is his impish good humor. According to the title of one of his multimedia works, I Am the World's Most Famous Bad Pianist, 1987, Paik is not unaware of -- or embarrassed by -- his mediocre technique. In Duett, he plays bits of Romantic piano pieces, and even a kind of boulevard boogie-woogie, all badly but with great feeling. Accompanied by Takis's incongruous clanging on metal sculptures and by what sounds like Paik's own humming of lushly harmonious tunes, the effect can be hilarious but also sincerely moving. The pleasure that Paik takes in the piano (and, at one point, a harpsichord -- played even worse!) is infectious; and his humming is like a sketch of much grander music than that being plunked down. It is as if, again, Paik is dreaming of a music rather than playing it -- and perhaps that's the music we hear.

The Pianist was meant to "accompany" The Guitarist. There might be some kind of a Jerry Lee Lewis frenzy around the edges of this particular performance. The keyboard appears to be rolling and fluid -- so fluid that the notes flow from the piano as if pouring over a steep waterfall.

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