The Pianist
Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Ed Stoppard

Roman Polanski

Writing credits: Wladyslaw Szpilman (book), Ronald Harwood,
Distributor: Focus Features
Rated: R for violence and brief strong language
  (USA 2002)

These are difficult times in which to be even a registered Democrat, let alone an unrepentant liberal. As I write this, the United States is being run by a renegade administration so intent on retaining its own power that it has granted itself the right to detain anyone, even American citizens, at any time, as an "enemy combatant", merely if it decides, with or without evidence, that said individual has ties to terrorism.

I watched with disbelief two years ago as people associated with this bunch sent thugs down to Florida to intimidate black voters away from the polls, and later, to intimidate vote counters. I watched with disbelief as this administration, having lost a popular election, took power. I learned that they ignored intelligence information that might have prevented the horrific events of September 11, 2001 from occurring. I watched as they used it to invade Afghanistan and build an oil pipeline for their friends at Unocal. I watched in horror as this administration's Justice Department systematically dismantled civil liberties, through the ill-considered so-called PATRIOT Act and now through the Total Information Awareness initiative, which will mine every piece of data about every citizen, in search of terrorists. All this from an administration led by a man who has said on at least three separate occasions that he'd rather be a dictator. All this from an administration whose spokesman has said that people must watch what they say. All this from an unelected President whose grandfather helped finance Adolf Hitler.

And still I watch. I know it's only a matter of time before people like me who aren't goose-stepping to the Republican party line are carted away, branded as enemy combatants or terrorists or whatever inflammatory name Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer and John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld can come up with. And still I am a spectator. I go to work and live my life and try to pretend it's not happening; that it won't happen here, that somehow it'll wait till I'm gone -- even though I know it won't. I know because history tells me it won't .

I now understand the Jews in Germany and Poland during the late 1930's who said it couldn't happen; Jews like the Szpilman family of Warsaw, depicted in Roman Polanski's triumphantly shattering film THE PIANIST. The Szpilmans were educated, erudite, firmly ensconced in Poland's middle class. Wladyslaw Szpilman, a rather foppish young man as portrayed by Adrien Brody, played Chopin on Polish radio; undeterred until the bombs actually came into the studio window, shattering glass on his impeccably-pressed attire.

First there are the rules: Jews must wear white armbands emblazoned with a blue six-pointed star. Jews are not permitted to walk on sidewalks, they must walk in the gutter. Jews are required to bow to Nazi soldiers or be beaten. Jews are not permitted to sit on park benches. Jews are banned from the coffee shoppes they once frequented. Then there is the bullying by the occupying soldiers. Then all Jews are herded into a ghetto, where food is so scarce that an old man frantically gobbles spilled soup off the street. Still, so hard to believe that this could actually be happening. So you go along. You obtain work permits that you know in your heart are useless. You pretend it's just temporary. If you are young Wladyslaw, you cling to the notion that your class and education will suffice -- until it's too late and you and your family are being herded towards the boxcars that lead to one of Hitler's extermination camps -- and all you can do is say to your sister, "I wish I'd known you better." Pulled from the crowd by a Nazi collaborator who was once a friend and does this one last dubious kindness, now you know your life is permanently changed. Denial turns into a fight for survival. It's Szpilman's fight, and now, watching THE PIANIST, it's yours.

There is nothing in THE PIANIST that hasn't been done before, and the temptation is to shrug one's shoulders and say, "Enh...Another Holocaust film. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt." That this is a story that has been handled with an emotional sledgehammer by Steven Spielberg in SCHINDLER'S LIST, and with a ferocious rage this year by Tim Blake Nelson in THE GREY ZONE in no way diminishes the astonishing feat exiled director Roman Polanski has accomplished here: to create a powerful, shattering portrait of the utter randomness that was survival of the Reich without ever raising his cinematic voice. Polanski, himself a survivor of the Cracow ghetto, is perhaps the director who is most entitled to rub our noses in the gory details of Holocaust lore; and yet his is perhaps the most restrained treatment yet.

The result is a curiously detached, yet oddly beautiful film. Polanski is confident enough in his subject material to simply show us the images, many from afar, without feeling the need to zero in on a lingering close-up of a man in a wheelchair being thrown from a balcony because he can't stand up in deference to the soldiers who have invaded his home; of a woman weeping after having smothered her child to keep him quiet; of the Szpilman family meticulously cutting a caramel purchased for the exorbitant sum of twenty zlotys into six even pieces so each family member can have a taste. In creating an emotional distance from the horrific acts and images of the slow, inexorable, systematic destruction of Jewish life in Poland, Polanski keeps the audience attentive; there's no need for numbness to set in to protect the viewer's psyche against images it does not wish to face. Where there is emotion, it is the silent-film image of Szpilman's face weeping as he wanders aimlessly down a street strewn with the belongings of the damned; or limping down a street littered with the burnt-out husks of what was once a thriving city.

There is no particular reason to hope for Szpilman's survival, and yet we do. As created by Brody's performance, Szpilman may be talented, but he's hardly a genius. He's a rather self-involved young man, not particularly likeable, but he does have one driving force -- his music, which sustains him through the solitude of his long exile of being shunted from one hiding place to another by members of the Polish resistance who have no discernable motivation to do so. We don't cheer him because we know the world would be a darker place without the gift of music we know he will bring to us. Like the people who hide him, we want him to live "because he lives", to quote Sönderkommando Salmon Lewenthal.

This is a film that is essentially a solo act, and that burden falls on the skinny frame of Adrien Brody. Brody has one of the most expressive faces in film today; and his performance, combined with Polanski's strong sense of imagery, turns THE PIANIST into something that would have worked just as well as a silent film with a few well-placed titles and a Chopin piano soundtrack. Brody's is not a conventionally handsome face, but it's a fascinating one, and this performance has an odd sort of cool, elegant dignity. It's a role that requires a lower-key rendition of the kind of method acting that was once associated with Robert DeNiro, and in a mirror image of DeNiro's ballooning for RAGING BULL, Brody lost thirty pounds he could ill afford to lose in order to portray the desperate, starving Szpilman, slowly deteriorating into an almost spectral being consisting of nothing but eyes and hair and fear and hunger.

The perspective of this film is arguably from inside Szpilman's head, and as we are observers along with him of the horrors taking place before his eyes, we too feel the desperation he does when his fingers trace the movements of a Chopin piece above a piano he doesn't dare to play, lest it reveal his hiding place. And when he's finally permitted, indeed ordered, by Nazi soldier Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann, in a short but indelible role) with a crumb of civility left in his soul to play something, it restores the humanity not just of this henchman of Hitler, but also for the now wraithlike musician, clutching a can of pickles as if he were a frightened child with a beloved teddybear. It's an image eerily reminiscent not of the heroically placid Yitzhak Stern of SCHINDLER'S LIST or the resistance fighters of THE GREY ZONE, but of Christian Bale's twelve-year-old Jamie Graham in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, holding tight to his box of memories and Norman Rockwell print of a family tucking in their child. Brody plays this character as a sort of meditation on survival, and this eerily calm, highly internalized performance shows none of the twitchy energy that has often characterized his performances in films such as SUMMER OF SAM and LIBERTY HEIGHTS.

We are so accustomed to films that deal with the atrocities of the Holocaust bludgeoning us over the head with the horrors that occurred, as if we wouldn't get it otherwise, it's nothing short of astounding that the one director who could be forgiven for screaming these images from the rooftops, chooses not to; and that a man with the kind of morally reprehensible past that Polanski has, has given us the gift of perhaps the most hauntingly profound, and even timely, film of the year.

- Jill Cozzi


Review text copyright © 2003 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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