The evil men do
Three-time Oscar nominee Roman Polanski certainly has the personal and professional credentials for making a film that deals with basic survival and the resonance of evil such as surfaces in the World War II drama The Pianist. Polanski himself is a famous survivor. His mother died in Auschwitz, his father was confined in a separate Nazi concentration camp, and Polanski grew up in the Krakow ghetto. He later attended film school and then came to the United States, where he made Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, two films that intelligently and chillingly explore the womb of wickedness. What is surprising is that the now-notorious exiled bail jumper has returned to form after several cinematic stinkers (The Ninth Gate and Pirates) to tackle such an inherently sensational subject as the extermination of Polish Jews and with such oddly objective, detached success.
The Pianist is the adaptation of classical keyboardist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiography by screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Dresser) as filtered through Polanski’s own childhood experiences. The film begins in 1939 in Warsaw. Szpilman is performing live on Polish radio when the station is bombed. Plaster falls on his head, but he keeps playing until being literally blown from his studio stool and into the harsh realities of German occupation.
Szpilman returns home to a family under siege. Nazi restrictions on the local Jews escalate. His parents and adult siblings quarrel over where to hide the money they have that exceeds a recent decry. A family acquaintance joins the Polish police group that collaborates with the Germans, and he urges Szpilman to do the same. A businessman offers to buy the family piano for a criminally low price as the Szpilmans’ food and funds are depleted. “I’m doing you people a favor,” they both say. But the Szpilmans do not agree. “You know what people are like,” says Wladyslaw. “They want to be better Nazis than Hitler.”
No amount of aching desire can make the Nazi threat go away, even as Britain and France enter the war. “Poland is no longer alone,” trumpets a radio broadcast. But immediate relief is long in coming as Polanski pulls us into the pianist’s life, showing us the horrors that occur around Szpilman and immersing us in a stain of history that we know he cannot change.
Polanski uses Schindler’s List production designer Allan Starski to complement his focus on the detail and routines of ghetto life. (Why reinvent the wheel?) We stay in Warsaw, never venturing to the gas chambers, but never escaping the tyranny of reality that gradually erodes the starched hope of Warsaw’s Jewish community.
Szpilman is not so much the film’s protagonist but rather our witness to the crimes against humanity and the absurdity at hand. He is our eyes into a world of indiscriminate executions, starvation, relocation and deportation—a world in which the Nazis dictate that Jews must wear armbands measuring exactly 8 centimeters from point to point, and then the Nazis herd 360,000 people into a small section of the city.
Polanski doesn’t allow the film to build in emotion. There is no catharsis, no waves of grief and relief, but rather a stacking of incident upon incident like stones upon a grave that we already know exists. The film loses its narrative thrust during the last hour, but it regroups near the bell after a long crouch to deliver an ironic knockout punch.
The Pianist is nearly too unthinkable to be real. It is a nightmare in which brutality is swift (a kid is beaten to death while climbing under the ghetto wall, and a man in a wheelchair is tossed from a balcony), as a sort of popular piano dandy winds up as a hunted, starving animal. The film includes an oft-ignored eruption of ghetto resistance and the painful birth of Holocaust humor, and it tosses blame for some of the suffering at the American Jewish bankers who could have urged America to declare war on Germany.
Some scenes are unforgettable. Others are nearly unwatchable. All the while, Polanski makes us feel the isolation and growing desperation in a ghetto from which it’s “easy to get out. It’s how you survive that’s tough.”
Adrien Brody (the older Jewish brother in Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights) is excellent as the musician whose life is saved by luck, by love of music and by the benevolence of strangers. It is to Polanski’s credit that he didn’t use stars to paint celebrity faces on the victims here. As Ariel Dorfman, the co-screenwriter of Polanski’s Death and the Maiden puts it: “Roman has spent his life mastering and using the techniques of realism in the service of the unspeakable.” And The Pianist is a near masterpiece.