Geras on Polanski

by Chris Bertram on August 5, 2003

A bit more online content from Imprints: Norman Geras’s reaction to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. He concludes:

bq. The Holocaust and other calamitous experiences not only can be represented, they must be, whatever the difficulties. There will be those who err or fail in the way they do it. Others, though, will not, as The Pianist itself exemplifies. And if part of what is revealed in these efforts to represent the universe of pain and death is some surviving human value, so be it. Would the world be better without this, or for not being shown it? No, it would be then truly without hope, the hope that Polanski professes to have found in Szpilman’s story in spite of the enormity of the surrounding horror.



James Russell 08.05.03 at 9:56 am

I’m puzzled that people find the film objectionable because it takes some sort of hopeful and redemptive stance. By virtue of the actual events it depicts (Szpilman surviving the Holocaust), how could it not have done such a thing? One might extend such an argument to say the existence of anyone who survived the Holocaust is an insult to those who didn’t…


pathos 08.05.03 at 2:57 pm

As I understand it, the most compelling criticism of the film comes from where it differs from reality, not where it matches it.

Specifically, as I understand it, the German Nazi officer who rescues the protagonist was committed to so acting, and had subverted his government on other occassions. He was an actual hero. In the movie, he is portrayed as a “regular” Nazi officer who is moved to save the hero due to the beauty of his piano playing.

The implication is that any Nazi officer could have his soul touched in such a way, not merely the rare officers who were already fighting the power.


Shai 08.05.03 at 3:36 pm

Pathos, I don’t think the “because” necessarily holds. I do remember that a family friend removed Szpilman(sp?) from the lineup at the train for a reason not so different from that, but does it hold for the officer as well?


Stephen Laniel 08.05.03 at 3:37 pm

I spoke with a Holocaust scholar named Lawrence Langer some years ago, who got very angry with literature and movies that tried to paint a hopeful picture of the Holocaust. As I remember, he loathed Anne Frank’s diary. Langer’s point was basically this: for every one person who survived the Holocaust, there were 100 who died ignominious, anonymous deaths. To focus on the heartwarming tales from the Holocaust doesn’t elevate humanity; it allows us to slowly forget the Holocaust’s “point” (to use a word that seems out of place). We must focus on the Holocaust as an event of suffering, not one of hope.

Viewed in that way, I think I quite agree with Langer. I think the “never forget” axiom is tied in with “never forgetting what the Holocaust was.” And I think we should be asking ourselves: What is it that we hope to accomplish by focusing on the hopeful parts?


dsquared 08.05.03 at 3:46 pm

I think we accomlish exactly what Norman Geras suggests.

I’d also humbly submit that “never forget” is a silly rule when what we really mean is “Don’t forget yet”. Do you really think that we should continue to place such a special emphasis on the Holocaust when it is as remote in history as the Crusades?


pathos 08.06.03 at 12:39 am

Well, of course, “Never Forget” is the natural correlary of “Those Who Forget Are Doomed to Repeat.”

Assumedly, therefore, if you Never Forget, you Never Repeat (not logically air-tight, but nonetheless arguable).

If there is never another Holocaust, then we should Never Forget it. If there is, the argument goes, we obviously Forgot, and therefore should begin Never Forgetting the new Holocaust to avoid a third one.

If Never Forget = Never Repeat, then Never Forget is the proper rule, even 1,000 years from now.


Norman Geras 08.07.03 at 4:00 pm

Lawrence Langer has done important work, and the burden of it is to make a worthwhile point: don’t use the Holocaust to tell fairy stories of courage, faith, heroism, transcendence, etc, when the reality was so unremittingly desperate and brutalizing. The trouble is that in making this point Langer pretty much erases what few ‘moments of reprieve’ (in Levi’s phrase) there actually were. He just squashes everything that there is of hope or consolation in the stories told by survivors to the margins and off the page. And that then also gives an imbalance and a distortion.


Nabakov 08.08.03 at 9:33 am

My view is the history of the human race is littered with terrible and disgusting events from what’s happening in the Congo now to the Holocaust to Stalin’s Russia right back to the death camps of the Peloponnesian wars and beyond.

Whether you look it at quantively or qualitively, at our worst we are even worst than we can imagine.

So debating over how we would and could show and inform each other about how evil we can get strikes me as splitting hairs – on a wig.

Hmm, that may be a striking analogy but it probably make doesn’t much logical sense.

So can I put this way, amongst other things, I’m an almost successful scriptwriter and one thing you realise when telling a story set in a pile of shit is that you need to find the embedded diamonds so you have a contrast and so then something that engages people in what yer trying to say.

Which is a roundabout way of saying I really liked “The Pianist” which is the best thing Polanski’s done since “The Fearless Vampire Hunters”… OK “Tess”.

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