Born in 1912, Wladyslaw Szpilman (pronounced Shpeelm’n) was a young virtuoso pianist in Warsaw performing on the radio when the Germans charged into his city. He survived the seige that placed Poland under German control. There were the German rules with which to contend: Jews not allowed in the park; Jews not allowed to sit on a public bench. Wladyslaw and his family—his father and mother, his sisters Regina and Halina, and his brother Henryk—with other Jews were consigned to the Warsaw Ghetto upon the German partitioning of the city; by law, under threat of “severe” penalty, they each had to wear a right armband displaying, according to meticulous measurements, a blue Star of David on a white background. The Ghetto was permanently sealed—walled in—on November 15, 1940. The awful brutality to which Jews were routinely subjected was often meted out by the Jewish police force by which the Germans maintained order in the Ghetto with minimal effort on their own part while at the same time demoralizing the community by setting Jews against Jews. Wladyslaw and Henryk refused a personal invitation to join the force; Henryk, the more embittered, was the less accommodating of the two. Wladyslaw worked, playing piano, in a Ghetto café; he was his family’s sole support. Eventually, his forced labor included hauling bricks. In 1942 began the transportation of 500,000 Polish Jews to death camps. Wladyslaw felt an utter failure; he had gone to pains to obtain the permit that he thought would spare his father—the kind of permit he and his other family members had already secured. In early 1943 he and his family and so many others were herded together by the train tracks to make their fatal journey to Treblinka. While waiting for the trains to arrive, they pooled their meager coins to share among them a single caramel. A security officer intervened at the last moment, separating Wladyslaw in a flash from his family and depositing him, hidden, on the other side of the security line. He was now a fugitive—at 31, on his own (and with the help of a few decent Polish Gentiles and even one German officer enraptured by his musical talent) to survive somehow and to dodge Nazis until, two years later, the Soviets liberated Warsaw. After the war, Szpilman, continuing to live in Warsaw, resumed his career and wrote a highly regarded memoir of his World War II experiences. Szpilman was haunted by the fact that he survived when so many others, including his father, his mother, his sister Regina, his sister Halina, and his brother Henryk, did not. In 2000, the book, The Pianist, belatedly appeared in an English translation; later that year, at age 88, Wladyslaw Szpilman died.
Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, based on Szpilman’s memoir, is engrossing and harrowing. Polanski, returning to his native country for the first time since his most brilliant and admired film, Knife in the Water, in 1962, was the man for the job, goodness knows. (Polanski’s family had returned to Kraków shortly after his Parisian birth.) As a boy he escaped the Ghetto through a barbed wire fence, while his parents were among those Jews herded onto trains bound for Auschwitz. His mother was gassed at Auschwitz; Polanski survived on his own, with the help of Catholic families across the Polish countryside. Jerzy Kosinski’s brilliant semi-autobiographical novel The Painted Bird (1965), about a fugitive Jewish boy similarly desperately trying to survive across a surreal landscape, indeed drew generously on his friend and fellow Pole Polanski’s wartime experience. About a decade ago, Polanski turned down the opportunity to direct Schindler’s List (I did not know he had been offered the chance when I ended my piece about the film by stating that Polanski might have made a better candidate than Steven Spielberg to direct it), saying he wasn’t ready yet to confront his intensely painful wartime memories. Clearly, Szpilman’s memoir released him from the mental prison this implies. The result is an achingly beautiful film that far surpasses anything else Polanski has done except for The Fat and the Lean (1961) and Knife in the Water, and that makes amends for such a bug-eyed melodrama as Death and the Maiden (1994)—a film that, touching on Nazi horrors, may now be seen as a necessary step towards his directing The Pianist. Perhaps his film version of Ariel Dorfman’s grotesque play purged Polanski of any inclination to sensationalize or sentimentalize the Holocaust in advance of his making whatever related film awaited him. If so, The Pianist redeems Death and our tawdry experience in watching it.
Like the occupied city of Warsaw, the film is divided into two parts; the trains headed for Treblinka demarcate the division. The first part is given over to documenting the brutality and viciousness of the German occupation, under the weight of which ordinary Jewish Poles lose by degrees the security and, in some cases, a sense of their lives; the second part records Wladyslaw Szpilman’s fugitive life. These two parts are flawlessly melded together. Creating a single fabric out of the two parts of the film are several factors. One, psychological, represents a brilliant stroke of comprehension on Polanski’s part, born, doubtless, in the rubble of his own wartime experience: Wladyslaw is not only dodging Nazis in the second part but is, humane observer as well as fellow participant, in guilty, tormented flight from all that we have seen happen to his family and to other Jews in the first part, and in flight also from—which is the apotheosis of all this—his family’s removal to the train headed for a death camp when he has been snatched from sharing their fate and left behind, alive. This is one way that the two parts become one continuous movement. Another cohering aspect is stylistic: the specifity of Polanski’s observations, which thus match the individuality, even uniqueness, of Wladyslaw’s experience. Schindler’s List is almost totally generalized; Andrzej Wajda’s superlative Korczak (1990) is more specifically defined; but The Pianist is so astonishingly specific in its detail of Nazi brutality and of Wladyslaw’s hardship and bodily deterioration while hiding from the Nazis that this also helps bring the film’s parts together. A third aspect is also stylistic: the almost surreal echoes that ripple through both parts of the film. These abound. Here is an example: the train headed for Treblinka echoes the Gentile bus that, passing through the Jewish sector, earlier (literally) divided Jews from Jews as they waited for the bus to pass. (Brace yourself for some need for careful attention: another series of echoes is established by the physical resemblances shared by different sets of characters crossing the pianist’s path.) A fourth aspect, growing out of the two others just noted, is again stylistic: the film’s adept balance of subjectivity and objectivity—of Wladyslaw’s engagement and detachment—conveyed by Polanski’s use of camera and editing to create a multiplicity of shots, differently angled, which blend observations keyed to the character’s eye and wider views—extensions of Wladyslaw’s observations—keyed to the filmmaker’s perspective. One of the most amazing examples involves Wladyslaw’s glimpse, from the window of a hiding-place, of the fire-bombed rubble that Warsaw has become; the camera, angled downward to suggest his line of sight, eases down the slightest bit and flattens out to express the “wider” view. In another, even more amazing example, with Szpilman in the frame, the camera rotates to face upwards, revealing a company of Allied planes in the sky: the beginning of the end for the Germans. Polanski’s visual artistry is at times magical.
This blending or melding of objective and subjective elements isn’t new for Polanski, although earlier demonstrations of the method tended to be relatively clumsy. In Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), for example, he uses it to demonstrate that a character’s paranoid insanity has redefined her reality. There is, in fact, in The Pianist a superb instance of projection, that is, objectivity keyed to the psychology or subjectivity of the character. This involves the squelched resistance of a group of Jews inside the Ghetto. Whatever the intentions of Ronald Harwood’s (at times flat-footed) script, Polanski presents the event, simultaneously, as actual event and as a projection of Szpilman’s—a canceled possibility for action that, had he also pursued it, would have certainly ended in his own death. “What good did it do?” he asks someone who is helping him hide from authorities. She responds that the resistors died with dignity. But they died, and Wladyslaw Szpilman’s motive is to survive, if this is at all possible.
Indeed, survival as a valuable pursuit in and of itself is one of the film’s unifying themes. Polanski doesn’t present Szpilman as a hero worthy of idolatry, and by embracing his protagonist’s humanness he effectively blurs the distinction between “hero” and “coward.” Polanski’s own wartime experience had taught him that survival—short of interfering with somebody else’s survival, perhaps—is everything. It is the achievement of survival that’s heroic, then, for the appearance of it—what we see as we watch Szpilman survive however he can—is at times grubby and pathetic. As fugitive, his existence, like his appearance, becomes increasingly animalistic. However, Szpilman’s survival (like his own) is a small, gracious victory—not a Pyrrhic one, since it in no way exacted the price of the Holocaust—with which Polanski can confront the Holocaust: a precious Jewish life sounding the defeat of German intentions to erase European Jewry from the face of the earth.
Another theme unifying The Pianist is a recurrent one for Polanski: luck. It, too, assigns Wladyslaw to a category other than that of a conventional hero. His intelligence doubtless contributes to his survival, but so much throughout his experience involves luck—happenstances (at least seemingly) out of his control. Sometimes he seeks out the right person; at other times, the right person just happens across him and helps or rescues him. Near the end, a German officer who might kill Wladyslaw, for instance, spares him out of a mixture of war-weariness and an appreciation for his musical talent. “Luck” in this film, however, is a double-edged sword. Wladyslaw’s luck reminds us of the unlucky many, including his parents, sisters and brother; and luck can turn, cannot be counted on, so it exacerbates Wladyslaw’s anxiety rather than relieves it, except when (or even when?) it kicks in.
Finally, there is the film’s most exalted, most pervasive and most resonating theme: the redemptive power of art—for Szpilman, his music, especially his Chopin; for Polanski, his filmmaking: the piano for one, The Pianist for the other. The film ends, after the war, with Szpilman—elegant and handsome again—performing in concert; we hear him play an entire piece, and this allows us to reflect on the nature of Szpilman’s composure and on the deepened role of music in his life. The final credits roll over this passage, and if you depart the film before this final passage ends you haven’t seen the film and you can’t possibly know what the film is about. In the strictest sense of the word, The Pianist is sublime.
The film is full of fine touches. In one of Szpilman’s series of hiding-places, for example, there is a piano that Szpilman must not play lest he be overheard by a neighbor. But he sits down at the piano and, with the camera fixed on his transported face, we hear the music in his mind; the camera descends to show his fingers above the keys, playing nothing but air. (Throughout the film, we see Szpilman’s hands, unconsciously perhaps, flexing as though touching piano keys.) Another touch I like: since the Germans forced Jews to wear armbands “branding” them with the Star of David, Polanski refuses to let the swastika take visual precedence over the Star of David, which thereby becomes an insignia of the film as well as the prominent symbol of a group, of a people. Heil-Hitlering is another cliché with which Polanski dispenses.
Both Korczak and Schindler’s List are in black and white (except for the latter’s forays into color), and I made it clear in my piece on Spielberg’s film that I thought this the correct choice for a nondocumentary. But I hadn’t seen The Pianist! The Pianist (beautifully) opens with black-and-white documentary footage of 1939 Warsaw, but slips into a perfectly apt and expressive use of highly subdued colors, mostly browns and blues. Pawel Edelman is the cinematographer. Allan Starski, the production designer, and the entire special effects and animation teams, including those who “extended” the mise-en-scène by use of computers and created the most deeply affecting snow I’ve seen in a film, snow that shimmers with the idea of the frailty of existence, merit hosannas.
With a single exception—Frank Finlay as Szpilman’s father is a tad over-the-top—the acting is marvelous. I must praise most highly, though, three of the performances, two of them by actors who come to us with famous parents. Ed Stoppard, British playwright Tom Stoppard’s son, is sensitive and anguished as Henryk Szpilman, especially when, awaiting deportation to Treblinka, he fingers as though it were a talisman his worn copy of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, from which he reads aloud: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” Absolutely haunting is the acting of Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, the German officer who helps Wladyslaw. Finally, at the center of the piece, Adrien Brody gives a tremendous performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman. (Brody’s mother is Hungarian-born photographer Sylvia Plachy.) Brody impressed me early on, in Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill (1993). I admire his work in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) and Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam (1999; although his mother’s photograph of Brody by a mirror, with his character’s mohawk-’do, surpasses anything that Lee’s film came up with!); and I cherish his sweet, gangly young unionist in Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses (2000). This extraordinarily beautiful young man, with his mild eyes and truly awesome beak, must now be accounted, in addition, a great actor. Already slender, Brody lost thirty pounds over the course of portraying Szpilman’s ordeal, and his increasingly heavily bearded gauntness creates an indelible film image, as memorable as that of Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). “There was over a month and a half,” Brody has said, “where no other actor was on set. . . . the state of mind I was constantly trying to connect with was one of isolation, fear, boredom and loneliness. I had to cultivate that kind of feeling in me on a daily basis—six days a week, morning to night.” Brody’s efforts have incalculably benefitted Polanski’s film.
The Pianist is a Polish-French-British-Dutch-German co-production in English and German. It most properly belongs to the category of nondocumentary Holocaust survivor films; Agnieszka Holland’s Polish Europa Europa (1991) and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Danish The Island on Bird Street (1997) are two other fine examples, both of which also are based on actual survivors’ experiences, and the latter with which The Pianist forms a special bond of kinship. But in another sense Polanski’s film is in a class by itself. It won for Polanski the world’s most prestigious film prize, the Palme d’Or at Cannes. In the U.S. it has been named 2002’s best film by the National Society of Film Critics, the Boston Society of Film Critics, and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. The National Society of Film Critics also named Polanski best director, Brody best actor, Harwood best scenarist, and Edelman best cinematographer; the Boston group identically honored Polanski and Brody. Edelman also won for his cinematography at the European Film Awards. And Polanski, Brody and Harwood all won Oscars.
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