In his January 2003 review of Roman Polanski’s film The Piano, Roger Ebert emphasized the relationship of the director to his subject. Based upon his 1946 memoir of surviving the Holocaust purely as a matter of luck and chance, Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew, watched as his book was denied distribution by the Communist regime that took power after the defeat of Germany. Szpilman’s memoir was only finally released to the public following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the establishment of democratic governments in Eastern Europe.
In reviewing the 2003 film that was adapted from Szpilman’s autobiography, Ebert noted the similarities between the film’s subject, Szpilman, and its director, Roman Polanski. Both are Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, during which their families were murdered, purely as a matter of chance. As he wrote in his review of the film,
“Polanski himself is a Holocaust survivor, saved at one point when his father pushed him through the barbed wire of a camp. He wandered Krakow and Warsaw, a frightened child, cared for by the kindness of strangers. His own survival (and that of his father) are in a sense as random as Szpilman's, which is perhaps why he was attracted to this story.”
As Ebert noted, Polanski’s mother died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz as the Germans pursued their effort at exterminating Europe’s Jews. Polanski himself has noted that directing “The Pianist” was the closest he ever came to finding some sense of closure with respect to the death of his mother and his escape from a concentration camp. In a 2002 interview, Polanski explained his impressions upon reading Szpilman’s book as follows:
“This book [The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945] describes the events I remember from my childhood. For many years I’ve been planning to make a film about this period, but I couldn’t find the right material. Szpilman’s book isn’t just another chapter in the book of martyrdom we all know. In his memoirs, he describes these events from the point of view of a man who experienced them. . . . Reading the first few chapters, I knew it was going to be my next film.”
Polanski’s survival was solely a product of luck. He knows that, and the comparison with Szpilman’s experience reaffirmed the excruciatingly slim margin by which these two Polish Jews survived. Once again, as Ebert wrote in his review of “The Pianist,”
“By showing Szpilman as a survivor but not a fighter or a hero--as a man who does all he can to save himself, but would have died without enormous good luck and the kindness of a few non-Jews--Polanski is reflecting, I believe, his own deepest feelings: that he survived, but need not have, and that his mother died and left a wound that had never healed.”
Eberts comparison of Polanski and Szpilman was entirely appropriate given the degree to which the director identified with the story of the composer.