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USA 2002
Directed by
Roman Polanski
148 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Pianist

Synopsis: When the Nazis entered Warsaw in October, 1939 it was home to 360,000 Jews. When they left the ruins of the city, in January 1945, there were only about 20 Jews left alive. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brophy), one of Poland’s foremost concert pianists, was one of them and this is his story.

It is surprising that this film has been such a critical success, taking home the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2002, Best Picture at the BAFTAs and an Oscar for Polanski as Best Director (Ronnie Harwood won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and Brody, even more suprisingly, Best Actor). Not that it is not an extraordinarily well-made film, for as a production it is meticulous. It’s just that it’s a very conventional one.

It is probably safe to say that The Holocaust has generated more film footage that any other single historical event and though there have been a few unusual takes on it, from Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful to Mel Brooks’ The Producers, the vast majority, in one form or another, are illustrations of the brutality of the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, with which this will no doubt be compared (both share the same production designer, Allan Starski and costume designer, Anna Sheppard), was one of the first, to my knowledge, to introduce within the dominant opposition of thug and victim, a counter-current – that there were Jews who made money throughout it all, who dealt with the Nazis and who sold black-market goods to their brethren. The Pianist not only confirms this but shows that there were Jews who collaborated with their oppressors, acting as their police minions.

But for the most part, it gives us not just familiar images - the random beatings, the summary executions, the over-fed, self-satisfied SS officers, their emaciated,terrified victims – but some remarkably heavy-handed ones – memorably, in a yard awaiting transportation to Treblinka, a little boy standing with an empty bird cage whilst Szpilman’s brother reads aloud Shylock’s oft-used soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice - " ..if you prick us, do we not bleed?...etc". If any director could penetrate the surface, one might think, it would be Polanski, himself a child survivor of the Cracow ghetto, not to mention later events, but his film shows us what we have seen on film many, many times before, even if rarely so well-crafted.

Once we have logged the horror, there are two pressing questions occasioned by the Holocaust – how, sociologically, do these things happen? And, how, psychologically, does the individual survive them? Polanski and his writer, Ronnie Harwood (who also scripted Taking Sides, a film about Wilhelm Furtwangler, the most influential musical conductor in Germany prior to and during World War II) touches neither of them.

Szpilman initially appears as an urbane musician playing live for Polish radio when the Nazis enter Warsaw, he survives the virtual annihilation of the city and its inhabitants, apparently gifted with a near-miraculous invisibility, and re-emerges as, once again, an urbane musician playing live for Polish radio. During this whole process he barely expresses an opinion about what is happening to himself, his family or his people. Having survived the murder of his family and friends, witnessed the worst of human behaviour, he simply resumes his piano playing (Adrien Brophy’s performance is largely limited to looking painfully, sadly asthenic). He appears to be a man without personality, his story a mere pretext for Polanski to recreate an historical event. But purely as a spectacle.

What was the rationale for the Holocaust, why the Polish Jews in particular were the object of such hatred we are not told. With the very limited exception of the classically Aryan-looking Captain Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), Szpilman’s protector at the end of the film, who himself barely has an opinion, the Germans are the undifferentiated perpetrators of an atrocity. I have not read Spilzman’s own account of his survival, published shortly after the war. Polanski's film, by all accounts, is quite faithful it and thus we can presumably attribute this unusually matter-of-fact attitude to Szpilman's detached personality.

The oddest thing of all, at least for me, is the representation of Szpilman himself. Particularly in the latter stages of the film when his hair is long and lank and he has a full beard, with his large nose he looks the very image of the Jew of Nazi propaganda. Polanski even has him hiding in a attic, like a furtive rat, all but rubbing his paws together as he tries to open a tin of pickled cucumbers. But it is not just his appearance that seems to confirm the caricature. The ultimate conformist, Szpliman seems to have no agenda other than his personal survival. Yes, he does help out with the Jewish resistance, but that appears as merely circumstantial, not because of any conviction or sense of outrage.

Perhaps here is Polanski’s twist. Perhaps (for there is no trace of cynicism in Polanski’s public statements about this film and his regard for Szpilman) the outcome is not to show the nobility of man overcoming tragedy, but the prosaic ignobility of what man will endure to survive it. Jan Kadar did it in his 1965 Oscar winner, The Shop on Main Street, although there the medium was much more clearly matched to the message.

 

 

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