Perhaps it’s just the soul’s shout of rebellion against oppression, but there does seem to be an aspect of music and song that provide fuel for the spirit of the oppressed under the most dire of circumstances. Think of the early Christian martyrs who sang hymns while being burned at the stake under Rome’s cruel hand. Two films recently came out that explore the terrain of the relationship between music and tyranny in a relatively modern historical context.
The first is The Pianist, nominated for Best Picture and winner of Best Actor and Achievement in Directing at the Academy Awards. Taking place during World War II and based on a true story, we follow the life of concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who survives against all odds in a besieged Warsaw. One of the things that makes this film so riveting is the portrayal of the German soldiers’ cruelty and the Polish Jews’ refined passivity. But the story’s central theme is survival, and for Mr. Szpilman, that meant music.
Coming from a well-to-do family and under contract with Polish State Radio to perform live on the air, we are greeted with his world literally crashing down around him as the Germans drop bombs near enough to destroy the radio studio he is playing in. In the following years, we watch as his family are first herded into ghettos and finally taken off to the concentration camps. After spending some time in the ghetto, he went underground and was able to survive for the duration by coming to a unique relationship with his playing. Of course, to remain in hiding, he could not play—he could not make a sound—and even when the underground found an apartment for him that had a piano, he dared not play it.
But paradoxically, it was nothing short of his celebrity status as a pianist that contributed to his survival. He was well known enough that even unsought, he was extended favors and treated like a national treasure that had to be rescued. And of course, in one of the film’s most riveting moments, we get to see this now bruised and battered man literally play for his life before a German officer.
The other film is the award-winning South African documentary, Amamndla! (a Xhosa word roughly translated “power to the people”). Here we have a fascinating look at the history of Apartheid through the music and songs of the oppressed blacks. Taking it decade by decade starting with the 1950s, we see how music provided not just solace to the oppressed, but often found its way into open rebellion in the face of their oppressors. As most whites could not understand the languages they were singing in, they would sing songs of open defiance, with choruses of “we will shoot you, we will kill you, be careful what you say …” all done to a sweet melody that made the whites smile.
Though it is true that music has always played a large part in the lives of the black Africans (some of this is simple adaptation to the circumstances in which they found themselves), the film also makes us aware of the unifying aspect that communal singing, during protests and in the meetings held to organize the resistance, had in the face of adversity. It is during times of trial that we begin to believe that music has powerful potential as a weapon against tyranny, and we also hope that such beautiful melodies never have to be used for such purposes ever again.
The Pianist is still playing nationally, and Amandla! is touring the country in limited release. Click here for theaters.
[Dwight Buhler lives and works in Los Angeles as a drywall contractor. He is an elder at his church and has the spiritual gift of being able to tell if a movie is any good by watching the trailer.]