War causes unspeakable pain for mankind but under such conditions, the noble qualities of mankind manifest in the most unfeigned of ways. In the darkest hour of human existence, the best and worst of human life is seen.

Only when the wicked are defeated, and the truth is exposed, are people be able to make a righteous decision. This may be true but on rare occasions, almost impossibly so, some can overcome this truth.

In the certain fight between good and evil, apparent in the second World War, there were a powerful few who chose to uphold kindness in the face of hatred. People who dared to risk their lives in disregard of their orders, to refuse to stand on the side of evil, even when evil was dominant.

Prestigious Academy Awards

“The Pianist” is a 2002 drama, directed and produced by the Polish director, Roman Polanski. It is based on the autobiographical book ‘The Pianist’, a World War II memoir from the Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman. The film is based on the account of his experiences during the Holocaust. It has become the most highly regarded film of Roman Polanski’s great movie works.

(Jdxyw/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

This iconic movie became an undoubted classic and won a plethora of awards around in the world, including three Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Director. As well as two BAFTA awards for Best Film and Best Direction. It won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman had been very famous for his mellow and absorbing piano tones before the war. However, these beautiful piano sounds became another victim of the conflict. Szpilman and his family, together with thousands of other Jews, were forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto. Within the ghetto Jews endured heinous abuses, many were subjected to slave labor and had their human rights trespassed and violated before their inevitable removal to camps across the region. Szpilman, however, managed to avoid deportation to the Treblinka extermination camp by hiding out in a dilapidated abandoned building, the site of the most pivotal moment of his extraordinary life.

One of the best known and most valuable scenes in the film sees pianist Szpilman, whilst hiding in the abandoned mansion, physically weak and in an exhausted condition,  being caught by a Nazi officer. Instead of giving him a bullet like other Nazis would have done, the officer asks Szpilman to play the piano upon learning that he is a pianist.

At first Szpilman plays with anxiety and fear, but eventually, those emotions were replaced with musically given peace and serenity. The magical power of music worked to drive the pain of his reality a little further away and entice his enemy a little further in.

He chose to play a section about the love of the Polish homeland composed by Chopin, a fellow Polish composer. His skillful fingers glid over the keys, with the emotion of a man playing for the very last time.

After listening to his piece on the piano, the officer is  mesmerized by Szpilman’s talent. So much so, that he later returns with food and a jacket for the pianist to help him withstand the freezing winter.

Surpassing all conflicts of nationality, region, mentality, and mission, was their love for music unifying the two strangers. War can not erase the universally acknowledged transcendence of music.  Perhaps this is the most meaningful message conveyed by the movie.

The film was adapted directly from Szpilman’s memoir, originally published in Polish in 1946. It was not translated into German until 1998, nor into English until 1999.  Perhaps it took so long because it contained such dolorous truths, that the wider world was not yet ready to face.

The Real life of the main characters

The characters presented in the memoir quickly fell into obscurity. It wasn’t until 2002, more than 50 years later, when Roman Polanski transformed the memoir into a movie, and their truth unfolded on the screen, that their story was realized. People were stunned by the internal strength and energy of the genuine artistic spirit of Szpilman. The way his humanity remained shining so brightly during the darkest of wars, was like a star twinkling in the blackest night sky.

A lighthouse in a time of dark night

Thanks to the resounding success of the movie, another unexpected hero became known to the world. A rare and decent man who was previously completely unknown, yet he became a symbol of goodness and courage. It was the Nazi officer, Wilhelm Adalbert Hosenfeld, portrayed in the movie as the savior of Szpilman.

Upon learning about the bloody genocidal war launched by Hitler, Honsenfeld decided to risk his life and disregard his duty, in the application of his inapt vow; to help the innocent Jews. It was a vow made in rebellion to the masquerading ‘noble’ ideologies indoctrinated by Hitler in order to seduce so many Germans into joining the Nazi party and his army at that time.

Author of the book ‘I always see the human being before me’, Hermann Vinke said: “His moral and ethical compass remained intact during the war” and “Against the backdrop of murder and deadly blows this officer was like a lighthouse in a time of darkness”.

Excerpts from his diary and letters to his relatives carry further evidence of his thoughts, repentance, and compassion towards Nazi victims during World War II.

When he first housed these starving, mistreated Polish prisoners he was shocked by their condition and wrote to his wife, “I think people look and see that I suffer with them. It is pitiful to see these poor men, their miserable state, but we are powerless. But I seek to help who I can.”

He told his wife that he was wearing the uniform of criminals and said that, “One is ashamed to be a German”.

In 1943, after witnessing the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt when every last Jew was either killed in the uprising or deported to the gas chambers, he wrote in his diary, “These animals. With horrible mass murder of the Jews, we have lost this war. We have brought an eternal curse on ourselves and will be forever marked with shame. We have no right to ask for compassion or mercy; we all have a share in the guilt. I am ashamed to walk in the city”.

“It is impossible to believe all these things, even though they are true. Yesterday I saw two of these beasts (S.S men) in the tram. They were holding whips in their hands when they came out of the ghetto. I would like to throw those dogs under the tramp. What cowards we are, wanting to be better and allowing all this to happen. For this, we too will be punished, and our innocent people after us, because in allowing these evil deeds to occur, we are partners to the guilt.”

“These brutes think we shall win the war that way. But we have lost the war with this appalling mass murder of the Jews. We have brought shame upon ourselves that cannot be wiped out; it is a curse that cannot be lifted. We deserve no mercy; we are all guilty.”

Although Hosenfeld’s circumstance pushed him to join Hitler’s army, his true humanity helped him to recognize the crimes of his countrymen, resist indoctrination and ultimately help to protect the innocents.

He was later honored by the world for his contribution and given a title for his courage, kindness and progressive thought. He was awarded the honorific “Righteous Among the Nations” by The Israeli Foreign Ministry in 2007 for non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis, and the Order of Polonia Restituta in 2009 by the Polish Prime Minister.

He is perhaps most influential in the way that he reminds all of us that even in the bleakest of waters, honorable life can swim. It is too painful to imagine that every Nazi could have been brainwashed to such a degree, to remove their humanity. Hosenfeld encourages us to hope that there were others who’s humanity shone through the darkness.

The strong message that this cinematic true story has left in the heart of audiences the world over is one of humanity, love, and astonishing bravery. But also of the power of art and music to intensify the spirit. In the most harrowing of times, music was the miracle that helped to repel the inhumanity of war, drive away hatred and brought enemies closer together.“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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