From Polanski and Costa-Gavras, A Reckoning With the Holocaust

By Annette Insdorf

Published January 03, 2003, issue of January 03, 2003.
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When I embarked upon writing the first edition of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust” in 1979, there were only a few dozen films on the subject to warrant critical attention. Ten years later, about 50 more had to be added to the second edition. By 2001, the number of Holocaust-related films had grown to such a degree that I had to expand the third edition by 170 motion pictures, and even so it is missing the significant titles of late 2002. Recent or upcoming releases include “Max,” which traces the relationship between a Jewish art dealer (John Cusack) and a young aspiring artist named Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor) after World War I; “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary,” a documentary about the woman who was the Führer’s assistant; Roman Polanski’s award-winning drama “The Pianist,” and Constantin Costa-Gavras’s “Amen,” which deals with the passivity of Church officials during World War II.

These last two films, especially, reflect and contribute to the fact that awareness of the Holocaust has replaced silence; moreover, aging survivors feel the urgency to speak to a younger generation that is hungry for information. Rather than diminishing in importance over time, the Nazis’ extermination of European Jewry is becoming increasingly central to our cultural and political discourse, and film is emerging as an increasingly powerful tool amid a wider cultural arsenal including museums, memorials, videotaping of survivors for archives, as well as Yom Hashoah commemorations every spring.

And so it seems more than coincidental that Polanski and Costa-Gavras — European film directors who have been making internationally acclaimed films for about four decades — are grappling with the Holocaust in their most recent movies. “The Pianist,” released last week in New York after winning the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, is being hailed as Polanski’s most personal motion picture; Costa-Gavras’s “Amen,” which opens here later this month, is a masterful adaptation of Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play, “The Deputy.”

The parallels between the two men are striking. Both directors were born in 1933 —Polanski in France (to Polish parents who returned to Krakow with him in 1937) and Costa-Gavras in Greece — before embarking on remarkably similar trajectories. After international success with such early films as “Knife in the Water” (1962) and “Repulsion” (1965) for Polanski, and “Z” (1969) and “State of Siege” (1972) for Costa-Gavras, they excelled in English-language dramas: The former hit the jackpot with “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “Chinatown” (1974), while the latter gave riveting cinematic shape to political and moral issues in “Missing” (1982) and “The Music Box” (1989). For different reasons, both ended up in their adopted country of France.

Inevitably, connections between “The Pianist” and “Amen” abound. While both were made in Europe, they are English-language dramas; based on real people, each is adapted from a published text; both include a decent German officer, and each uses a traditional or sober cinematic style that is far from the flashiness of the directors’ earlier masterpieces.

“The Pianist” is a French-Polish-German co-production whose script by Ronald Harwood is based on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, “Death of a City” (1946), which was banned by communist authorities. It follows Wladek (magnificently incarnated by American actor Adrien Brody), a famous pianist, from the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 to the end of World War II. During this time, he survives inside the Warsaw Ghetto and later hides on the Aryan side.

With impressive authenticity, Polanski depicts how the situation grows progressively worse for Jewish victims of Nazism. Wladek’s relative safety does not last as he endures fear, hunger, dependence and loneliness. Having escaped from the ghetto to an apartment in the German quarter, he must then flee back into the newly abandoned ghetto. Ingeniously surviving in an attic, he is discovered by a German officer, Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), who inexplicably helps Wladek after hearing him play the piano.

“The Pianist” marks the return of Polanski to Poland, whose landscape must have been fraught for him. Not only did his mother die in a concentration camp, his father was deported (but survived) and young Roman spent the war in the Krakow ghetto and then hiding among peasants in the countryside. Nevertheless, he says in the film’s press materials that he chose Szpilman’s book partly for its distance from his personal story: “I could use my own experiences in the script without making it an autobiography.”

Although Polanski has not been granting interviews, he agreed to answer a few questions from the Forward sent via fax. Confining himself to only a few words in the margin of the returned fax, he acknowledged that he made “The Pianist” in part because of a sense of urgency 60 years after his own harrowing experiences as a boy. “Very much so,” he replied to the question of whether making “The Pianist” is related to the fact that he is, at age 69, a father of two young children.

Costa-Gavras, during an interview in late October when he was visiting New York, agreed that motion pictures continue to shape historical memory. Although he too experienced German occupation as a child — his family sent him from Athens to a small village “to survive,” in his words — it was only when he saw Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog” (1955) as a film student in Paris a dozen years later that something “concrete” was imprinted in him. He is not Jewish — “only very far back,” he said—but he felt the wartime menace of hunger: “Every morning, horse-drawn carriages went down the street to pick up the corpses of people who starved to death,” he recalled about Athens.

“Amen” centers on Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), an S.S. officer and chemist who specializes in the decontamination of water to prevent typhoid. A Christian with a loving wife and family, he has no idea how his chemicals, especially Zyklon B, are being used until he sees the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Shocked, he continues his work so that he can amass more evidence of Nazi guilt. He goes to the papal nuncio in Berlin — who wants nothing to do with his report of the Jews’ extermination — but his assistant Riccardo (Matthieu Kassovitz) tries to warn the Pope and the American ambassador. The young Jesuit ultimately makes a striking and sacrificial decision when the Pope does nothing.

Like Polanski, Costa-Gavras’s identity as a father

informs his choice of subject:

“Even our young son understood the era for the first time when he saw ‘Schindler’s List’ at the age of 13,” he said.

Since both directors were 12 when World War II ended, one can imagine how their outlook was shaped by what they witnessed. In press materials, Harwood, the British screenwriter of “The Pianist,” writes that Polanski “was dredging his own memories for details and incidents, like the scene where Szpilman is saved from a cattle truck bound for Treblinka. Polanski said, ‘I’ll tell you what happened to me. It’ll be better.’ It was a reality I could not have invented.”

Polanski’s Jewish protagonist is more lucky than heroic, which makes “The Pianist” a surprisingly frank and unsentimental film. Moral choice, so central to Costa-Gavras’s ongoing examination of resistance, is a luxury. In an immoral world, Polanski seems to be saying, all one can do is survive. By contrast, in “Amen” Costa-Gavras criticizes the cowardice, missed opportunities and wrong-headed priorities that enabled the Nazis to keep slaughtering Jews.

“That period is a metaphor for our times, our indifference, our silence vis-à-vis dramas around the world,” Costa-Gavras said. “It is a metaphor for the position of the Catholic Church in Latin America during military dictatorships. World War II is a permanent metaphor.”

For Costa-Gavras, who has been making films about human rights issues for decades, the Holocaust can be a dramatic echo chamber, resonant with other tragedies. For Polanski, however — a Jewish survivor of the Shoah — “The Pianist” is the first cinematic confrontation with his past, and therefore unique in its specificity.

Despite the difference in degree of their wartime suffering, both directors have chosen a new, muted style. When asked whether the fabled edginess associated with his earlier films has been replaced by a classical sobriety, Polanski replied, “Simple rather. Just tell the story.” A similar humility was expressed by Costas-Gavras when asked about his technique. “I don’t feel capable of reproducing or reconstructing the horrors of the concentration camp,” he said. “I decided from the beginning what we would not show, but rather make the viewer into the director. The viewer is more intelligent than we think.”






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