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Art wins in Polanski release
by Jake Highton
Jul 24, 2010 | 1210 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Perhaps pure justice did not triumph in the Swiss refusal to expedite Roman Polanski, but cinema art did.

Bernard Kouchner, French foreign minister, rejoiced over the decision to free Polanski. And no wonder.

Polanski enriched movie history by directing such outstanding films as “Knife in the Water,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.” But possibly his greatest movie was “The Pianist” filmed in 2002.

“The Pianist” is a moving adaptation of the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a classical musician who survived the Holocaust. He was playing Chopin for broadcast on Warsaw Radio when German bombs began falling Sept. 1, 1939.

Jews were forced into a brick-walled ghetto and stripped of all their possessions. Szpilman’s life was saved by a friend who pulled him off a train bound for the death camps.

Szpilman hid in the Warsaw Ghetto. From one apartment he saw such horrors as an elderly man in a wheelchair, who could not stand when ordered to, thrown off the balcony by the SS.

The rest of the family living in the apartment was shot in the street, the SS men gleefully driving off over their bodies.

Szpilman witnessed widespread killings, burnings and beatings of Jews. But the tide began to turn in August 1944 when the Warsaw uprising began. Szpilman watched from a window while the Polish insurgents fought the Germans, narrowly escaping death when a German tank shelled the building.

Szpilman in the movie has an air of anti-heroism and fatalism. But he is never aloof about music. When he played the piano I wept unashamedly at the thought of art overcoming horror.

Near the end of the film a German captain discovered him hiding in the demolished ghetto. He ordered the pianist to play. The officer was so moved he refused to turn Szpilman in. Indeed, he brought him food until Russian soldiers liberated Warsaw.

In the final scene, Szpilman triumphantly plays Chopin’s “Grand Polonaise brillante” in E flat major before a large Warsaw audience. (The Holocaust was never a triumph. Six million Jews were eradicated, leaving an indelible stain in history.)

Polanski himself survived the Holocaut. He was saved from the death camps when his father pushed him through the barbed wire of a holding pen. His father survived too but his mother perished in the gas chambers, a psychic scar that Polanski will always bear.

Polanski, a frightened and bewildered child, wandered around Warsaw cared for by the kindness of strangers. He was as lucky as Szpilman.

The Swiss authorities refused extradition because they were denied access to secret testimony about his expected sentence in the 33-year-old case. The California judge had intended to limit Polanski’s sentence to 90 days of psychiatric care.

Polanski, charged with rape of a 13-year-old girl, had plied her with Quaaludes and champagne. He pleaded guilty of having sex with a minor, spending 42 days in psychiatric ward in Chino state prison.

As the head of the Polish Filmmakers Association Jacek Bromski put it, Polanski had already “atoned for the sins” of his youth.

Polanski fled the United States in 1978 fearing still more jail time.

Despite the Swiss decision, the Los Angeles prosecutors refuse to drop the case despite a plea long ago by the victim to end the persecution.

Zoos abet science

People die every day in the New York Times who don’t die anywhere else.

Explaining the jest: The Times runs lengthy obituaries of important people in their fields who are unknown to most Americans.

An example is the death recently of Debra Kleiman, conservation biologist who helped bridge the chasm between zoologists and zoos.

She pioneered in efforts to turn zoos away from merely exhibiting animals into cooperative breeding programs. The captive breeding of endangered species like the California condor was enormously successful. The birds were eventually returned to the wild.

Many other cases abound. The Kansas City Zoo was successful in breeding Mexican gray wolves and returning them to their environment.

Kleiman, who was associated with the Washington Zoo for nearly four decades, specialized in studies of pandas. The biggest problem: Pandas would not breed in captivity even when they were shown “panda porn.”

Success finally came in 2005 when a panda cub was born at the Washington Zoo, the product of artificial insemination.

Captive breeding adds a scientific dimension to zoos.

Decades earlier zoos had been also transformed. Where once animals paced nervously in tiny zoo cages, they now live in natural habitats and range widely.

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. Contact him at
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