Friday 9 September 2011

Holocaust Horrors- Schindler's List VS The Pianist

       More than a year back I had thought about starting a series of posts comparing two or more films which have some similarities between them. I only did post the first one, about the beauty of Marie Antoinette vs A Single Man (if I had the option now, I would include Atonement and Tree of Life in this also). I am thinking about reviving it...but it will be very erratic, most probably. Anyways, this comparison was in my original list of comparisons; I do so love my Holocaust films and these two are the best that I have seen so far.

        It is a fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, or more commonly known as the Oscars, are partial to World War II films. These films range from stories of the soldiers sent to war, epic and doomed romances, the dilemmas of the authorities at that time, and the Holocaust. The Holocaust was easily one of the worst events to have ever occurred in human history; the worst if you ask me. I can never understand how people can be so full of hatred for other people, who are not of the same race and religion as them. It's not so much the killing and the torture that terrifies me, but this unfathomable and extreme hatred. The two films- Schindler's List and The Pianist showcase two different viewpoints, or maybe even three, of the horror of this dark and damned period.

Okay basic facts about the two:

             Schindler's List is about a German businessman, Oskar Schindler, who saves the lives of many Polish Jews in the Kraków Ghetto by giving them jobs in his enamelware factory. He first starts out doing so as he thinks it is cheap labour, but his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern uses this as an excuse to employ needy Jews on Schindler's behalf. As Schindler begins to see how it is saving their lives, he begins to change and become a more compassionate man. This change in him is triggered even more with the arrival of the SS Lieutenant Amon Göth, who is as ruthless and cold a Nazi as probably Hitler was. As he sees the atrocities being committed to poor innocent Jews around him, he becomes determined to save as many as he can, even forgoing all of his monetary and worldly objects. It was directed by the masterful Steven Spielberg and is a clear indicator that while he is a big alien geek, the man can make incredible dramatic movies with the same expertise as the ground-breaking sci-fi ones.

             The Pianist tells the story of Władysław Szpilman, a Polish Jewish pianist who has his world turn upside-down when the World War II stroke Warsaw. His story is the flipside of Schindler's story- he suffers first-hand from all the barbarism that Jews were subjected to during the Holocaust. From losing his livelihood, to his family, to having to survive on the most basest of ways; the man literally goes through hell during this period, but comes out the other side victorious. And when I say victorious, I don't mean that he particularly fought for any cause, but that he won in his fight for being allowed to live- a right that is everyone's by nature but not in this most unnatural of times. The Pianist was directed by a Holocaust-survivor himself, Roman Polanski. Now I did not know this before, but Polanski actually survived the Kraków Ghetto, and it makes sense why he refused Spielberg's offer to make Schindler's List when the idea had first come to Spielberg. Polanski lost his mother during the Holocaust when she was taken to Auschwitz, and it is so obvious that he felt more in tune with Szpilman. Surviving the war, loosing loved ones, and living with the guilt of being the one who didn't die- these themes are as apparent in the film as it probably might be in the director's life. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to make this film, but no one else could have done it better.

                Now my thoughts on these films. Some random, interesting things that I made notes about while watching them. Schindler's List starts in colour and then it fades into black and white. The Pianist starts in black and white and then becomes coloured. The first time we see Schindler, or a part of him, is when he is opening a bottle of alcohol. The first time we see a part of Szpilman is his hands playing the piano. The first look of their faces- Schindler looks smug and wise in a slightly vampire-y way (the way the light reflects in his eyes in the beginning); Szpilman is focused and ever-so-slightly sad. Both the protagonists however are shown to be very determined in their first scenes- Schindler to get the notice of German officials, and Szpilman to finish his piece in the piano.

           As you can see from the very beginning itself, the films could not have been more opposite from each other. There is a quote towards the end of Schindler's List, "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire." This, to pinpoint exactly, is the basis of all the difference between the two films. While the first shows a man trying to save lives of many, the second shows a man trying to save his life from many.

            Schindler's List is a magnificent film. The whole black and white looks of it pronounces the despair at those times more. One of the most upsetting scenes in the film was during one of the health checks that the Jews had in which, in order to look healthier and save themselves, the women prick blood from their fingers and use it as rouge and lipstick. There was no colour left in the lives of the was literally being drawn out by the savagery of the Germans. In all this Schindler becomes their hope. I love the slight changes in his character. The plight of the Jews really affects him, and though he keeps the facade of a profit-loving businessman, the end shows how involved he had become in their whole ordeal. Neeson is a born-leading man. He was effortless in being the smooth Schindler, and the subtlety in his acting for the times when he feels for the Jews is really great. His final outburst is heart-breaking. He feels guilty to be called good by people, and that is what eventually leads him to do his acts of generosity and greatness. This is ofcourse brought about by Sir Ben Kingley's character, Itzhak Stern. I have never heard praise about his character, which I think is very wrong. While Schindler is secretly good, Stern is all-out empathetic and helpful. He is the one who starts recruiting needy Jews, and he is the one who witnesses the changes in Schindler just like us. Obviously no one can talk about Schindler's List and its actors without mentioning the career-defining and simply superb performance of Ralph Fiennes as the deplorable Nazi officer Amon Göth. His role is what sets this film apart for me. I think Göth is the embodiment of why this whole movement or set of actions by the Nazis enthrall and repulse us at the same time. His scorn towards the Jews was almost compulsive, as we see in his interactions with his Jewish help Helen Hirsch. He was blood-thirsty and lustful, but at the same time an efficient officer and someone who lived and died with the conviction that his actions and believing in Hitler's crazy agenda was the right thing to do. Fiennes fills out this role. He is charming and cruel and totally mad. I sometimes like to think that there indeed was some soul in him, but that scares me even more. Like that scene when he points at the mirror and says, "I pardon you"; he is almost like a God there who thinks taking away people's lives is a right.

             The Pianist is nothing without Adrien Brody as Władysław Szpilman. This is a singularly magnificent piece of acting that Brody has done here, and it is, quite possibly, my most favourite performance by an actor ever. One cannot talk about the film without talking about him. In the beginning, Szpilman is a respectable, well brought-up gentleman from a good home. All this reflects in the way he carries himself and talks to everyone. He is even charming with the women, and a good brother and son. When the Warsaw Ghetto is made, his life starts changing in the most brutal ways. Living in a tiny home, slaving for adequate amounts of food, witnessing people die slowly around him- all looks horrible. A child dies in his hands, and from his window, he and his family watch on as Germans storm into the house of the Jewish family living opposite them and throw an old man on wheelchairs out of the balcony because he was unable to stand up to greet them. Soon he has to get work permits for his family, and he manages to do so with great difficulty. But still they are all soon deported to Treblinka- all except Szpilman who is "saved" by a family friend. There is a scene after this when he walks crying into the disheveled streets of the Ghetto because being the one who is saved from death while his family is suffering is a most bitter punishment. Then he joins a reconstructing unit in the Ghetto where he joins in an uprising by the Jews and helps them for a while. He then escapes and goes into hiding with the help of Non-Jewish friends from the entertainment field. He witnesses the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and feels wretched once again for being the one who is "safe". When an accident threatens to reveal his hiding place, he goes to his emergency connection, who was a former flame of his, Dorota, and her husband. There is a scene here, when he sees her play the cello and we feel how sad he must feel for losing two most important things in his life- love and music, in all of this. When he goes into hiding a second time in a very German neighbourhood, his apartment has a piano in it. Here we see how that instantly relaxes him and it probably makes him feel more safe than anything else. He gets jaundice at one point, and it is distressing to see his condition there. He looks gaunt and bony, and his movements are less upright as a gentleman is supposed to have, but it is understandable because of all the time he spends completely alone. Brody is on his own throughout most of the film, and his little facial movements of sadness or concern or deafening loneliness speaks louder than any actor doing any kind of dramatic acting. When the Warsaw Uprising happens, he has to escape from his house again, and he lives off from going from house to house in an absolutely pulverised and ruined Warsaw. His movements become animal-like and we think the man he once was has completely gone in all this hardship. But finally one day, a German officer finds him and upon finding out his profession from him, asks him to play the piano is a house where Szpilman was hiding in. This is the moment of truth, and a scene that makes me weep like none other. Despite being malnourished and what I would think, brink of insanity for being isolated for so long, once the man touches the keys of that piano, he plays like the maestro he always was. This scene is so necessary because while it was important for the man in him to survive through all this, it was more important for the pianist to be there. He plays out his sorrow and frustration and everything at that time, and like us the German is awe-struck and mesmerised. I truly think that Szpilman would not have minded dying after that- it was like his salvation.

              I thought the direction of both was top-notch, but what Polanski did with The Pianist was transcendent. One must not let the past histories of the maker affect their judgement of what he has made, but I can safely say that this is a genuine exception. As I said before, I cannot imagine what he must have gone through making the film. Ebert had written about how Polanski wanted to show the effect of luck throughout this ordeal, like the kind he had had. That was there, but the guilt that came along with the luck was agonising. Despite having seen The Pianist atleast 10 times, I still get scared for Szpilman's life. This is because we know how important it is for his to survive. Stanley Kubrick had dismissed Schindler's List by saying that it is not a true picture about the Holocaust and how Spielberg showed the story of the few saved over the millions who died, but I think it is so paramount, as depicted by both the films, that inspite of all these diabolical acts, hope remained. The people surviving- whether it was the Schindler Jews or a pianist, is hope and good surviving. And the fact that both these films are based on true stories, just tugs at my heart strings you know...

I think I can write about these two films forever, but I am going to wrap it up now and decide which film I thought was better.

  • Direction- Spielberg made an honest effort and a great film, but Polanski did something extraordinary and plain inspiring by revisiting the true horrors of his past and creating an heartfelt epic about it.
  • Story- I believe The Pianist is a greater tale. It is story of survival like none other, and it is all the more amazing because it was true. And it is also the story of hundreds and thousands of others, who like Polanski, were saved but lost so many loved ones in the process.
  • Music- Well, The Pianist was about music, but I will give this one to Schindler's List as it was a touching original score, and the Jewish songs in between were beautiful.
  • Cinematography- I am partial to black and white and some of the scenes in Schindler's List are just breath-taking.
  • Art Direction- The Pianist, especially for the crumbling Warsaw.
  • Acting- Haven't I said enough? I love Fiennes as Göth and he's probably in my top 5 antagonists, but Brody as Szpilman is absolutely mind-blowing.
  • (This generally doesn't matter, but this is my post so...) Ending- Many of you won't get it, but I thought the Schindler's List ending was way too Bollywood. However The Pianist's ending was superb. It brings about a perfect circle, and Szpilman is shown as such an adept pianist, and Brody's hands are so graceful. 
So all in all, I think The Pianist wins for me simply because the story, acting and direction is more heartfelt and touching.


    1. Oh lordy - how I wish you'd posted this on a day when I wasn't bracing to dig into 20+ films in a ten day bender.

      Nik, this is a fantastic post - and has some wonderful observations about two films I dearly love (I hadn't rewatched THE PIANIST for year until the final episode of The Film Locker came along). I applaud you for being able to rank one over the other, because if you put a gun to my head, I probably still wouldn't be able to choose.

      If I don't remember this in two weeks when I do another Everybody's Talkin' post, I sincerely apologize.

    2. Thank you so much! I think I have always been biased towards The Pianist, but a recent re-watching of Schindler's List did make me think twice about that.
      Aww it's okay. It's the thought that counts :)

    3. Nikhat why did you have to do this post?! Now I'm convinced to have a movie night and watch these two movies in a row. You know how depressing that would be?!

      Nah, this is a great post. I'm kinda on the opposite side to you...I like Schindler's List a bit more than The Pianist (Schindler's List is probably my second favourite movie of all time, The Pianist probably making the top 20). I love them both to bits, though, for they are such beautiful movies.

      They're just brilliant movies.

    4. Haha. I saw both within 6-7 hours of each other, and that wasn't as depressing as I thought it would be.
      They are both beautiful movies. I dunno about THE favourite movies, but I think The Pianist would be in my top 25. They both are there in my favourite Holocaust films list though :P
      Very brilliant films indeed.

    5. Both excellent, excellent films. I don't disagree with you that Polanski probably directed the movie better, basically just as powerful a movie in nearly half the run-time. Nonetheless, I still think Schindler's List is the better film overall.

    6. I agree about both being excellent films. It's just that I like the villain a whole lot better in Schindler's List, which is weird. And god, I can't explain how much I love Adrien Brody in The Pianist! And that piano scene with the German officer.
      Thanks for commenting :)

    7. I saw Schindler's List in the cinema when it came out and it did my head in with its relentless violence - although I did think it was a film that should be seen. Recently I saw it again on TV and I managed to sit through it, this time without crumbling. I wasn't going to watch The Pianist, which followed a few weeks later, because I'd seen SL and they are both about the Holocaust and both heavy duty films.

      But I'm so glad I did. The Pianist is much the superior film. It's more subtle, less preachy, presented with more shading rather than the obvious goody/baddy scenario and quite brilliant. I'm still thinking about it and the horror of what happened. I also like the fact that in a quiet way it pays tribute to decent people who did what could to help in terrifyingly difficult circumstances. I wouldn't want to watch it on a regular basis because of the inhumanity that it presents, but I would definitely watch it again in the future, once I've forgotten it. Utterly brilliant.

      1. Wow, thank you for the comment.
        These films are pretty hard hitting. I tend to watch The Pianist slightly more than whatever the norm is (I guess 1 watch?) because I love Brody's performance and it strangely gives me hope. I completely agree with you on it though.

    8. Pianist is better overall, but schindler you could argue is more powerful

    9. Totally dissagreed. Body's performance wasn´t so good for the sheer fact the movie wasn´t it also, period. It´s a pitty and a shame people actually think The Pianist is better than Schidler´s List when it´s the opposite by far.

      1. I think more people prefer Schindler's List actually. I guess I was more moved by The Pianist because I tend to like one man stories more. Plus, Brody's performance and the movie are completely intertwined so I can see not liking one if you don't care for another. I love both.

    10. Awesome analysis! What do you mean by the ending of Schindler's List being too Bollywood?