Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Pianist

The Pianist is as much an autobiography by Roman Polanski as it is an adaptation of the memoirs of Władysław “Władek” Szpilman. Polanski too survived the Jewish ghettos, and he too knew the pain of losing a dear one to the Nazis. Szpilman's story is even more horrific: where Polanski escaped the ghetto and lost his mother, the pianist aided the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but lost his entire family to the camp at Treblinka. I often hear from uninformed friends or smarmy, clueless critics that historical films carry little weight, as you already know the outcome. But this is not a story of how a man survives, it is the story of how he deals with survival.

When the Nazis invade Poland in 1939, Szpilman and his rich family assume it will all end quickly, as Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Help never comes, however, and the Germans slowly strip away the rights of Poland's Jews. First, they limit the amount of money a Jew can carry, then force them to walk in the gutters, then brand them with those blue armbands.

In the first act, Szpilman barely notices the decay around him. His family has plenty of money, and he still enjoys a cushy job as a pianist. When the Germans move the Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto, he still gets by playing for the other residents. He declines an offer to join the Jewish police, for he does not need the pay enough to beat other Jews.

Then it all comes crashing down. Szpilman makes less and less until he loses his work completely and must help as a laborer, his family is loaded on a train to an extermination camp and he retreats into hiding. Adrien Brody gives a commanding performance, moving from the kind if aloof rich boy at the start into a man just able to contain his horror and panic behind a stoic face that won't attract attention. Szpilman witnesses unspeakable horrors, all filmed with a certain detachment that emphasizes their cold brutality without giving into the need to sensationalize it.

He stays and hides in the ghetto after the mass exodus to the concentration camps, and even helps the other remaining residents smuggle guns and food. As Szpilman bounds from hiding place to hiding place, we see the flamboyant showman shrink to a rail-thin, haunting creature, barely able to move at times from malnutrition. When a German officer, Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), discovers Szpilman and learns that he is a pianist, the captain bids the Jew to play for him, and Spzilman is so weak he can hardly even play a lick of Chopin at first, before it suddenly comes back to him.

Hosenfeld proves Szpilman's salvation, so taken with the musician that he allows the man to continue hiding and even brings food on occasion. Kretschmann perhaps plays the requisite "kind Nazi," but it's important to remember that A) these were real people, not all of whom could callously carry out their orders and B) this actually happened. Kretschmann gives Hosenfeld a stoicism to match Szpilman's.

The Pianist contains Roman Polanski's finest direction, neither the brilliantly psychotic style of his thrillers nor the stately retro throwback of Chinatown. His camera moves gently through the Warsaw Ghetto, capturing the horrors with a matter-of-fact style that calls to mind the clinical mind of Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick wanted to make a Holocaust movie, in fact, but shelved it when Spielberg announced he was making Schindler's List. Kubrick later expressed disappointment in that film's narrative approach, and I can't help but feel that this movie would come a great deal closer to what Kubrick wanted to make (even though it never ventures into the concentration camps). It also contains a personality that Kubrick, genius though he was, could not have given it: Polanski has something invested in the project, but he does not let his feelings get in the way.

I don't know that I would call The Pianist Polanski's best film; he has a number of masterpieces that makes ranking difficult and pointless. It is, however, one of the finest films ever made to deal with the Holocaust, and surely one of the finer films of the decade. Its period design, acting, direction and cinematography are beyond reproach, and if its final act seems a bit short, that's only because Polanski avoids repetition.

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