The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski)


Roman Polanski, in my opinion one of the best living directors, has done a lot of good (Repulsion) and bad (do you really need to ask?) and bizarre (Pirates) things in his lifetime, but it’s likely that The Pianist is what his career will ultimately be remembered for, the drastically wounding, rigorously unsentimental Holocaust story of the true and bizarre life during wartime of musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, here portrayed with subtlety and detail by Adrien Brody. Polanski is the correct man for this job by virtue of his own connections with it — his mother died in a concentration camp — and as so many times before, the tragedies of his own life become fodder for his camera: the initial escape and the early dread are taken from the director’s own stories, and there’s a diabolical precision to those sequences, the same frighteningly sudden sense of reality that embodied the murder scene in his Macbeth, modeled on the horrific killing of his wife Sharon Tate.

I haven’t seen most of Polanski’s work from the ’80s and ’90s, but it’s intriguing to see how many of his trademarks are retained in what is by its very nature a film that — coming from anyone else — might well be closed off from the idiosyncracies of a larger body of work. But here again are Polanski’s ruminations, familiar from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, on the horrors of apartment dwelling. Repulsion, in fact, is specifically called back when Szpilman is stuck for weeks in a room with no food, the opposite of the problem Catherine Deneuve had. What may be most impressive about the film’s first two acts is how identifiably they belong, for the most part, to Polanski and Polanski alone.

Alas, there is a certain sense in which one feels the director is too tempted to overtly state things that have already been proferred by others with equal or greater passion and skill. It’s a bit loosely edited, underlining the redundancies inherent to its faithfulness to real life; both times I’ve seen it, I’ve spaced out for long stretches — and it’s not as if there’s anything about this story that’s not fascinating. The uncompromisingly dark and unsweetened tone of the film — no Roberto Benigni stroll, this — is something more or less new, but the anonymous handling of the larger view of history in Poland at the time of the dawn of extermination, important though it is to the story, is dwelled on both for too long (the film runs 150 minutes and could easily be at least half an hour shorter with no less of a stunning feel for the hopelessness of the time, and not a trace less of a connection with Brody) and in too traditional a fashion. “Traditional” is the wrong word except when one considers how much Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List has become irrevocably a part of filmmaking vernacular.

Many scenes early in The Pianist are close replays from Spielberg’s movie, not just in terms of the unavoidable context of extermination which can and should be remembered often, but in the sense that the two directors approach the material in much the same fashion. The lead characters are different, the scenario (inevitably) is the same, but one wonders why so many shot compositions and editing choices are repeated verbatim, particularly during the raids on the ghetto. Polanski has shifted from Spielberg’s sober black & white to muted, hellishly faint color, but his approach is less idiosyncratic than one would perhaps hope. This isn’t his strong suit — much as Spielberg could never have made Chinatown or, for heaven’s sake, The Fearless Vampire Killers.

But Polanski’s becomes a movie of overwhelming power in its last forty-five minutes, when all hope has nearly disappeared for the young pianist and he is frail, bearded, wandering, hungry, halfway to dead. For some time he struggles to open a can of vegetables, and when he’s at last penetrating the lid, it falls to the ground… and at that moment The Pianist becomes a new film, a film that fulfills all of its early promise and more, one that meets every skeptical complaint about its first half. It is a movie of profound redemption and unexpected optimism; it’s heroic in its compassion and forgiveness. Any criticisms evaporate at this pure, overwhelming catharsis in the climactic scene, undoubtedly the reason the film was made, and as soul-stirring a moment as the moviemakers make. (Even if I’m not sure I’m wholly comfortable with the point I think it’s making about artistic exceptionalism, it makes it gloriously well.)

Of course you’re stricken by the amazement at the survivial of this young man against odds, against power, against everything. But the movie turns itself around to become more than that, even more important in a sense; it isn’t about the Holocaust, the war, persecution, justice, death, music any longer. It’s about elements of people that we sometimes forget are there. And the breathtaking piano playing is only one function of this instinct; we expect to leave a movie of Nazis killing Jews with less faith in humanity. We instead have more than we imagined possible, turned around by a mere movie more than we would dare to expect. But as he plays that concert out into oblivion over credits, you can’t help wondering: why him?

[Originally posted in 2007, with a few additions.]

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