By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Buy The Pianist on DVD
Just because Roman Polanski has made a Holocaust movie doesn't mean that he's fishing for an Oscar, as some have claimed.
For one thing, the exiled Polanski would never return to the United States to accept an award. And for another thing, this true tale of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who eluded the Nazis for the entire duration of WWII, was in his blood. It's a story he was born to tell; a story he had no choice but to tell. (As a child, Polanski himself escaped Krakow's Jewish ghetto in the 1940s.)
The Pianist, which recently won the San Francisco Film Critics' Circle Award for the Best Picture of 2002, opens today at the Clay Theater. It shattered me like no other film since Dead Man Walking.
Like Hitchcock before him and De Palma after him, Polanski is a master manipulator. This is a man who positioned his camera slightly sideways so that the audience would crane their necks to try and see around the corner in Rosemary's Baby. This is a man who tormented poor unstable Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion by leaving her alone in the house with her nightmares. This is the man who fought both Robert Evans and Robert Towne for the darkest (and the only possible) ending to Chinatown.
When Steven Spielberg made the other memorable Holocaust drama Schindler's List, he carefully held our hands and guided us through his story, providing restful little moments and breaks here and there, then dropping the ball completely with a ludicrous and insulting ending. For the two and a half hours of The Pianist, Polanski doesn't have to do much other than leave the story to tell itself.
It may seem like fairly straightforward filmmaking, but it comes from a man brave enough not to flinch. And in truth, the direction is not far off from that of Repulsion -- solitary characters trying to survive on their own in a harsh world.
American actor Adrien Brody portrays Szpilman, who works playing piano on Polish radio when the Nazis start attacking. Polanski barely lets a moment go by before letting loose with the first explosion while Szpilman is on the air. He continues playing for a moment, as if hoping it will all go away.
But it doesn't. The film spirals deeper and deeper into despair. In one scene, Szpilman and his family have nothing more to worry about than to decide where in the house to hide their money. But before long, the rest of the family is gone and Szpilman must fend for himself in a series of concentration camps. He escapes but things get worse; he must rely on the sporadic help of strangers for food. And then even shelter eludes him as the war winds down to its final days.
And finally, in the film's purest Polanski moment, the tension really gets bad.
But The Pianist is really more than the sum of its brilliantly conceived and orchestrated parts. Incredible, shocking, breathtaking pockets of moments arrive one after another. In one scene, the Nazis have randomly decided to execute some of the men in Szpilman's group. The condemned men lie on their stomachs on the ground while one goon walks down the line, shooting each one in the head.
When he gets to the final man in line, his gun clicks empty. Polanski shows us the man, lifting his head off the ground just a little, maybe daring to hope for a moment's more life, while the Nazi loads more bullets and finally, crushingly, finishes the job.
In another scene, Szpilman looks around his new apartment, his new hiding place. He's told to be absolutely quiet at all times, but lo and behold, this apartment has a piano in the corner. Szpilman sits down and begins playing, keeping his fingers just an inch above the keyboard, and hearing the refreshingly lovely music only in his head.
As Szpilman, Brody gives an extraordinary, exhausting performance, often without much dialogue to speak. As he grows hungrier, his pride and humanity melt away so slowly that you can't quite visually register it -- like a flower gradually dying. He shambles along, fingers twitching in mid-air, breathing through his nose as if afraid to open his mouth. He's like a reluctant Frankenstein monster created by uncaring villains.
Though The Pianist is performed in English, it marks the first time the 69 year-old Polanski has filmed in his home country of Poland since his superb 1962 feature debut, Knife in the Water. It's not exactly a "comeback," though -- his 90s films Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden and The Ninth Gate had their own moments of greatness -- but this is his best and most perfectly sustained film since perhaps Chinatown.
As I watched, I kept asking myself why we need yet another Holocaust movie. And then it occurred to me that arrogant self-righteousness and the persecution that follows are still very much alive in this world (two words: "Homeland Security"). It's never too late or too often to remember.
DVD Details: Universal's DVD comes with several featurettes: interviews with the three Oscar winners (Brody, Polanski, Harwood), a making-of short, a featurette about Polanski's personal history and clips of the real Szpilman playing the piano.