The Pianist (DVD, 2006, Single Sided Version Widescreen) Reviews
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The Pianist (DVD, 2006, Single Sided Version Widescreen)

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Roman Polanski revisits his ghosts in The Pianist

Jan 6, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Personal, honest, and well acted, this is probably an honest movie

Cons:Read the review while I try to hash it out.

The Bottom Line: Recommended despite its flaws, The Pianist is an important film, but it's not necessarily a great film.


As played by Adrien Brody, Wladyslaw Szpilman is the Chance the Gardener (or Forrest Gump, if your cinematic knowledge falls short of Being There) of the Holocaust. That sounds like a horribly glib way of describing a character, but it's a state of mind. The poster for Roman Polanski's The Pianist has the tag line "Musical was his passion. Survival was his masterpiece." That (and the fact that the film is based on Szpilman's books) should give some indication of how the film is going to progress. Because of its time and its setting, The Pianist is, necessarily, a tale of tragedy and death. Because of its protagonist, it's the story of how one person managed to survive.

And as much as it would be pretty to imagine that people stayed alive via wits, creativity, or fierce determination, amidst the arbitrary horror of the Holocaust, the brilliant, original, and strong with killed indiscriminately. No, Wladyslaw Szpilman survived in all the myriad random ways that most people did — certainly he was determined, certainly he was smart, but more than anything he was lucky, he had the kindness of friends and strangers, and he kept going.

Certainly people were picked out of lines by Nazi's and shot on the spot. But Wladyslaw Szpilman was not. Yes, people were put on trains and taken off to Treblinka. But Wladyslaw Szpilman was saved. People starved and died of thirst, but Wladyslaw Szpilman always remained right on the brink. Szpilman was a man who existed amidst the horror, but always remained just outside of the white-hot center of Hell. Thus, The Pianist, a movie about survival, is also a movie whose protagonist remains just on the outside. He's an involved observer.

The result, then, is that The Pianist is an important film and a film that should be seen, but while those qualities are manifest, The Pianist comes up just short of being emotionally shattering and heaven knows this is a subject that would tend to demand an audience on the brink of tears. I never was. To some degree, this is Polanski's intent, but I can't speculate who much of the distancing works.

The film begins in 1939, in Warsaw, Poland. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Brody) is a renowned pianist, playing regularly on Warsaw radio. With the Nazis occupying Poland, the Szpilman family is about to leave the city when BBC radio reports state that the British and French are declaring war on Germany. Poland, the radio tells the family, is no longer alone.

The family drinks a toast of false happiness (one of several in the film), but things will get worse. First the Jews were limited in the amount of money they could hold. Then they were required to wear armbands. Restaurants, parks, and benches were closed to them. And finally, the half million Jews in Warsaw were put in a containment area, the ghetto. Restricted in the work, restricted in their living spaces, restricted in their freedoms, the residents of the Ghetto were also subject to any violent whim of the occupying forces. Some plotted uprising. Some joined the Jewish police and survived by turning on their own people. People did whatever they could to survive and no matter what they did, it was *never* enough. Nobody survived this dark period in history just by doing whatever they could. The rules of fate were vague and cruel.

Polanski depicts this dark period with the worst of the tragedies on the outskirts at first, anecdotal more than anything. A boy trying to smuggle supplies into the ghetto dies.... A woman in an expensive fur stole wanders the streets of the ghetto searching in vain for her husband... The Nazis throw a man in a wheelchair out of a third story window because he failed to stand when they entered his house... But these are all things happening to *other* people. The bodies in the street remain remote to Wladyslaw Szpilman until he is left alone, left to fend for himself. There are good Poles and good Nazis and there are deceitful Poles and the appropriate percentage of purely evil Nazis. And then there's Wladyslaw Szpilman.

Szpilman is a perplexing character. The entire movie is about him, but two and a half hours later, he remains a mystery. He's Jewish, but shows no sign of religion. He's naive at the beginning, but it's tough to tell if he's wiser by the ending. He gradually becomes the single-minded embodiment of the survival instinct, but he spends much of the film just drifting.

In theory, music should been the character's anchor and the film is at its best when Wladyslaw Szpilman is in proximity of a piano. From concert halls and radio booths, Szpilman finds himself playing at a cafe in the ghetto, a hangout for profiteers and the apathetic. But Szpilman spends the middle of the film removed from his piano and his music and I never got enough sense that even in absence of instrument, it was Chopin that drove his every move. Whenever a piano shows up on screen, you know something magical is going to happen, sometimes literally. The film's climactic scene is in a gutted home in the ghetto where somehow a baby grande piano has managed to survive both unharmed and perfectly in tune.

Adrien Brody learned to play the piano for the role. Or at least he learned to play the piano well enough for Polanski to show the hands, actor, and piano in the same shot (not that there aren't plenty of cut-aways to what may or may not be stunt hands and the actual solos were performed by Janusz Olejniczak on the soundtrack). Brody's performance is nothing if not committed. He's gaunt and in pain pretty much from minute one, but when he gets near a piano you get the proper sense that this is a man who wants to live for only one reason, to make music again. Friends, family, and love are all secondary. This is the biggest movie Brody has been asked to carry and he remains something short of a movie star, which is actually to The Pianist's benefit. Brody has a tough-to-peg-down accent, but whatever it is, it remains consistent throughout except for the lengthy stretches where he doesn't speak and where Brody's eyes adequately retain interest. Any problems with the performance are the fault of the character-as-written, rather than the actor and even those problems may be directorial choices rather than faults. Wladyslaw Szpilman remains elusive.

Still, he's the only character to follow. Szpilman's family is a step above anonymous and the same is true of the people who help him. There are two attractive blond women who play roles in his life and I couldn't tell them apart. There are several handsome men with angular features who play roles in his life and again, I couldn't tell them apart. The second billed actor in the film is German actor Thomas Kretschmann, who appears in three scenes towards the very end. The fact that they're indistinct doesn't make the supporting performances bad. Polanski just knows that The Pianist isn't their story and he opts not to waste time on character names or recognizable actors. It's a choice. And I guess it'll be up to viewers to decide how it works for them.

The narrativizing of the Holocaust is a problematic issue that polarizes scholars and filmmakers alike. Claude Lanzmann, who directed the 8 hour documentary Shoah, is among the many people who criticized Schindler's List for inevitably representing The Holocaust through the artifice of the studio. Some things, he said, just shouldn't be reproduced by actors and production designers. And you watch The Pianist and there are certain moments that just feel like "Holocaust Film Moments" rather than like moments of truth. The crowding on the trains to Treblinka, the dead bodies littering the streets of the ghetto, the designer direct and rubble may look like crowding and death and rubble, but they can't be anything more than a layer of fiction and a layer of familiarity.

When tackling the Holocast, the most crucial choice that filmmakers have early in the process is whether they're making a movie about The Holocaust (an symbolic and all-encompassing proposition inevitably doomed largely to failure) or whether they're making *A Story* of The Holocaust (a micromanaged sense of containment). Schindler's List, for example, used the basic platform of Oskar Schindler's heroism to make a film about The Holocaust. Steven Spielberg lacked the ability and interest to restrict his story to the actions of one man to save one group of people and so he overreaches. As a piece of filmmaking, Schindler's List is masterful. Spielberg has never been more in control of his powers. But as a movie that taught much of mainstream America *everything* they know about the Holocaust, it becomes problematic because Spielberg can't resist stylization and sentimentality. So yes, he produces sentimentality and beauty, but it's not truth ("Ode on a Grecian Urn" be damned, beauty is *not* truth, necessarily). And so the question is what you're looking for and when you're looking for it. It's a tough issue, though, and most attempts to capture the entire essence of The Holocaust on film are doomed to failure.

With The Pianist, Polanski wisely aims for simply telling *A Story*. This isn't a movie that wants to depict the death camps, though we know they're there. And it isn't a movie that wants to depict the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, though Szpilman gets to watch it occur through the window of one of his hiding places. Polanski's story is what one man did to survive one horrible moment. And for Polanski, whose parents were sent to Auschwitz and who escaped from the Krakow ghetto, the tale is very personal. But because the Warsaw Ghetto had to be recreated on a studio stage in Germany, there's an inherent and ironic remove from reality. Polanski shot as much as he could in Poland, but still...

This is Polanski's most formally classical film to date and all evidence of the edgy and stylish director of Chinatown or Repulsion or Rosemary's Baby has been put on mothballs for at least one film. While the director and cinematographer Pawel Edelman frequently capture images of stark beauty, the camera is never an intruder. It's as if Polanski relearned cinematic grammar from films of the 1940s and 1950s, keeping camera movements austere and generally to a minimum. He resists using broad flourishes to produce shocking "reveals" as well, with the exception of one scene of Szilman returning to the ghetto, in which the camera cranes up to reveal the mass devastation (and because of everything that's come before, that shot feels like a cheat as well). Since Szpilman's perspective is central to the story, the camera sees things as the character would see them — from high up on unseen perches, through cracks in windows, or through shutters. And the violence is thus only periodically up-close and graphic (though the absence of gore and viscera doesn't make the film less harrowing).

It's when he betrays his lead character's perspective to show things Szpilman couldn't possibly have seen that Polanski falls victim to the rosary that reads "What Would Steven Spielberg Do" (or WWSSD). The crane shot of Szpilman entering the ghetto is a Spielberg shot. It aims for epic in a film that otherwise has been avoiding it. The shot of abandoned suitcases in the holding paddock showing that the Jews thrown on the train to Treblinka didn't even get to keep the things they brought is a Spielberg shot. It aims for sentimentality in a film that mostly avoided that. There's at least one close-up of a pile of burning bodies that may not be a Spielberg shot, but it's giving in to something that Polanski had been avoiding earlier in the film. It's an iconic Holocaust image in a film that mostly avoided them.

The friend who I saw the movie with commented on the absence of emotional contrast in the film, comparing it to Schindler's List, a film that produces easy tears by alternating between hope and devastation. The Pianist is a film of increasing and near-monotonous darkness. As things progress they become increasingly gray and lifeless as hope is drained from Warsaw. It's an interesting tactic, but my friends was mentioning it as a negative.

One simple scene shows the major difference between The Pianist and something like Spielberg's film. It's the quintessential depiction of random Nazi barbarism, in which a soldier goes through a line, picks out several Jews, tells them to lie face down on the pavement, and shoots them. One after another. But then, at the last man (the only man in the line we've actually met), the soldier runs out of bullets. Spielberg would play this as a moment of luck and salvation, holding out the possibility of divine mercy. But in Polanski's film, in a matter of seconds, the Nazi has a new clip, reloads, and fires. Polanski wisely avoids the obvious. But he does increase the grimness.

So the question of how you take The Pianist will depend, in the first place, on how well you deal with Holocaust films. Some people just prefer not to watch all the sadness. There's nothing to say there. And other people agree with Hayden White that the Holocaust is the ultimate Modernist Event and it just can't be properly depicted in a narrative film. And while there's a *ton* to say there, this probably isn't the time or the place.

The basics are that The Pianist is one of those films that has successfully improved as I've thought about it and intellectualized it, and I now feel comfortable in my recommendation. It's A Story of the Holocaust, not The Story and that's bound to leave some people searching for extended emotionalism that's lacking. Adrien Brody's performance is quite fine and the scenes that actually involve piano are excellent. I continue to strongly disagree with the rush of critics eager to crown this the best film of the year, but I see its merits and value to the tune of 3.5 stars, realistically. But I'm goin' with 3 here.

****
This seems to be my 150th review. Go figure.


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