In a World Without Heroes

Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer discusses 'The Pianist'

BY: Interview by Rebecca Phillips

Oscar Week on Beliefnet continues with Peter Singer, the Princeton University ethicist whose controversial views on animal rights and euthanasia have stirred international debate on these topics. In his new book, "Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna," Singer takes a new turn as a writer, telling the story of his family's ruin by the Nazis. With the Holocaust much on his mind these days, Singer talked to Beliefnet's Rebecca Phillips about Roman Polanski's movie, "The Pianist."

"The Pianist" is adapted from the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish pianist, who, while living in the Warsaw Ghetto, manages to escape deportation to a concentration camp and later escapes the Ghetto and survives the war.

You saw "The Pianist" in Warsaw where the film is set. What was it like to see it there?

It's obviously very moving. It's a very powerful movie, and during the movie Warsaw gets essentially turned into a heap of rubble. You walk out of the cinema, and you're almost surprised to see that buildings are there around you--many of them new, but one or two have been restored. You get a vivid sense that this is part of the history of where you are.

What moved you about the story?

It shows the abyss to which people can sink and also, to some extent, the heights of heroism people can rise to. It also showed the chance elements in survival--how much it was a matter of luck whether you did or didn't survive.

There have been accounts of the Holocaust that dress it up in one way or another, put a particular slant on it. This didn't. It didn't try to show all Jews as heroes either, since there was obviously a lot of nasty, corrupt stuff going on in the ghetto. That's probably what it was like--that's what human nature is like under these circumstances.

How did the Polish audience react to it?

They were clearly moved. Most of the audience was too young to [remember the events], so to some extent they were learning their own history. There's been an intensive discussion there of Poles' role, particularly because of the book "Neighbors" [by Jan Tomasz Gross], in the killing of Jews. The movie shows accurately that some Poles called the police to take Jews away and others risked their lives to save them. Without Polish help, Szpilman could not have survived.

What would you say to those, including Elie Wiesel, who maintain that it's wrong to depict the Holocaust in film, because you can't possibly recreate the true horror?

In one sense that's a truism: you can't have the people in the cinema starving and fearful that if they don't salute the next general passing, they'll get punched in the head or shot. But we do want people to know something about this. Given the fact that there are people who go to movies and don't read books, I think [Holocaust movies] are a positive thing. Even if they don't know exactly what it was like, they'll know something about it.

Do you think it's fair to tell the story of someone who survived the Holocaust, as most movies about the Holocaust tend to do, considering how many died?

If he hadn't survived, he wouldn't have told his tale, and we wouldn't know what happened. In my own book, the central character doesn't survive, but because my grandmother did, we have an account of what happened to him.

What we get from "The Pianist" is that yes, Szpilman survived, but his entire family perished, and that's probably about what the odds were. No one could leave that film getting the impression that most people survived. I don't think there's anything wrong with telling the story through the eyes of someone who did survive.

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