The Pianist

Genres: Drama, Historical Epic, Memoir/True Story

Premise on A Polish Jewish musician struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. The Premise Line is the spine of the story, whether the medium is a 400-page novel, a 110- page screenplay, or a 120-page stage play. It can be a marketing tool, but it also keeps the writer focused. Part of the Premise Line is the Inciting Incident, an external event that causes the Hero to engage in action and conflict. Okay – So, what’s the Inciting Incident of The Pianist? It’s when the father of the pianist’s family reads the armband decree that is written in the Polish newspaper for all Jews.

The Desire/Goal of the Hero is to survive the purge against the Jewish people, not only in Warsaw, Poland, but in all of Europe. So, the Premise Line should have read: When Wladyslaw Szpilman, a lauded Polish Jewish pianist and his family must wear Star of David armbands and face a mounting amount of antisemitism in 1939 Warsaw, Poland, friends conspire to help him buck the Nazi regime. The Hero is Szpilman; the Inciting Incident is when the family finds out what they already know about the beginning of the fate of Polish Jewry, and the Desire/Goal of the Hero is to buck the Nazi regime.

In the Premise Line, the genres should be apparent. In Memoir/True Story, the Hero’s name can be used, whereas in other Premise Lines, the Hero’s name should be left out. When the Premise Line is clear, the rest of the story can take shape.

So, what could have been done with this story to make it more compelling and high concept? The Hero’s Character Arc was questionable. He is impatient and professional and famous in all of Poland. He’s a hard worker, a perfectionist, and the show must go on even with bombs going off. He does not understand the full impact of what lies ahead for himself or his family. He is ensconced in the world of art and creativity, and he has a fondness for a non-Jewish woman. All of this is shown to us in Sequence 1 of the story. What we don’t see are his psychological or moral flaws – What could have been added: He doubts that the Jewish people will survive this nightmare, and yet he sees himself as somewhat different; spoiled by an adoring public; not with a proclivity to help his fellow Jew; somewhat self-centered, at loggerheads with his brother, who is ready to fight with the partisans for the freedom of his people.

These flaws should come to haunt him by the end of the story, when he witnesses unspeakable and vile cruelty on the part of the Nazi regime; the suffering and tragedy of so many lost relatives, etc. But the script left out those moments, so critical in storytelling, where the Hero is causing others pain in the beginning of the story. He is jaundiced and terribly ill. But he rebounds without comment. An ally character’s dialog would have been appropriate here.

If this Hero is near to perfect in the beginning, and at the end is also near to perfect, but all the wiser – this barely scratches the surface of the Hero’s journey. He’s back to playing the piano, which is his soul. This part of his character is beautifully portrayed, as is the scene with the Nazi high commandant Christian man who gives the pianist his coat to wear. And the understated subtext between the victorious Russian/Poles and the Nazis: The Pole asks him why he’s wearing a Nazi coat. He responds: “Because I was cold.”

The Nazi commandant who has humanity and respect for a Jew and saves him from the cold- We could call this a Double Reversal. But we are not shown this Nazi commandant from the beginning of the story. He would have been a formidable Opponent and this addition would have deepened the conflict and increased the Narrative Drive exponentially.

For, it’s not that audiences of 2002 did not know how it all worked out in the end that matters in great script writing, but it’s that Character Arc that the Hero exhibits that gives audiences a memorable experience. That said, Adrien Brody’s remarkable acting garnered him an Academy Award. But a somewhat predictable story of survival amidst horrific odds could have been raised to outstanding and remarkable storytelling with just a few additions to the story line.