After the impressive achievement of Schindler's List, The Pianist may have seemed redundant to many moviegoers. This story of one man's survival, limited to his point of view, is much smaller in scope than Steven Spielberg's holocaust tale. But, unlike Spielberg, director Roman Polanski was there and lived through the events shown. And even though most of List was in excellent taste, it still has the feel of an artist aestheticizing history to make it accessible to modern audiences. List is an excellent and needed primer that explains complicated events in storybook terms. The false sentimentality that spoils one key scene near the end, can't harm the essential goodness of that movie.
No stranger to horror, Polanski responds to the overwhelming evil of the Nazis by reverse means. The script is an oppressive first-person narrative in the director's proven brooding style. In the rushed, fearful atmosphere, characters don't stop to verbally explain themselves or spill exposition for the benefit of the audience. Infrequent text cards surface to announce dates and major events, like the Warsaw uprising.
This absence of authorial sermonizing allows us to experience Szpilman's ordeal directly, leaving us to come to our own moral conclusions. Szpilman survived, giving The Pianist an equivocal happy ending that makes it bearable as entertainment for general audiences. It was the best film by far of 2002.
The best quality that Roman Polanski brings to The Pianist is neutrality. As he says in the disc's docu, there were good and bad Jews, good and bad Christians, and good and bad Germans. Szpilman runs into people of both descriptions, and is the grateful recipient of mercy from individuals on all sides. His other survival skill is his sheer anonymity. When German officers cull victims from a work squad, he's never chosen to be liquidated. Another German soldier is so unimpressed by the weary-looking Szpilman, he doesn't think to thoroughly search a food bag for smuggled weapons.
Szpilman's story is one of extraordinary luck; thin and delicate, the musician doesn't look a likely candidate for survival. But the desire to continue his art is the engine that keeps him alive, and many who meet him are motivated to help. Actor Adrien Brody's best scenes are those in which we physically identify with his experience. When he paces hungrily, robotically through his little hideout, he reminds us of poor Catherine Deneuve going mad in Repulsion, hiding like an animal. Going for weeks daring not make a sound, he retains his sanity by playing a piano silently, his fingers hovering in the air. Our identification is so complete, we share Szpilman's joy in slipping into his first warm bathtub in months.
Polanski maintains total control while creating a convincing pre-war world. The real Warsaw was razed by the Germans, and after the war was mostly rebuilt to a new plan. A number of fully-functional streets were constructed for the film, and the Ghetto was recreated by partially demolishing acres of Russian Army barracks in East Germany. It's not as if a whole city was created, but the streets, which we see almost exclusively from the limited viewpoint of Szpilman's various hiding places, are as vivid as real memories.
Polanski's approach to the material respects the fact that the whole subject is already charged with extreme emotions. Our viewpoint as movie spectators matches Szpilman's - he can't do any more about what he's seeing than we can. The slaughter outside his window is witnessed with a detachment that doesn't give rise to sadism, or encourage visions of heroic intervention. With the violent scenes in Schindler's List, we're always hoping someone will rescue the very personalized victim of the moment. We're also invited to view the creative sadism of the Nazis - shooting people in a line like Pancho Villa, or idling away the time with random sniping into a work camp.
Here, the killing is anonymous and remote, and there's nothing in the brutality to excite a sadist. Few will remember the specific individuals wiped out by the Nazis on the street. Szpilman can't see individual faces, and witnesses a larger pageant of horror. Polanski's style overcomes the essential problem of dramatizing such overwhelmingly serious events - when the victims are personalized as individuals, it trivializes the subject. Two solid hours of people being killed still wouldn't begin to encompass the enormity of the Nazi crime.
Polanski is very aware that his job was to restrain himself and his creative collaborators from injecting unnecessary drama into Szpilman's experiences. Using his skill to bring things into relief, he admits that this is not a documentary, that events had to be molded into a film experience. The details are second-hand (from Szpilman's book) but also first-hand (filtered through Polanski's experience). Little kids were utilized to smuggle things through tiny holes under the ghetto wall; as a child Polanski was one of these children. The scene of Adrien Brody trying to save one such kid, stuck under the wall and being beaten to death, is double-autobiographical.
Universal's DVD of The Pianist is a masterful presentation of last year's hit, which had a good long run enhanced by its best actor win ... Brody's romantic Oscar-acceptance stunt didn't hurt either.
The enhanced picture and sound are as perfect as one would expect in a new film as this. The film is on one side, and a number of extras on the other. A trailer and some text extras augment a long and thorough docu called A Story of Survival. It uses vintage film, interviews, and clips with the real Wladyslaw Szpilman to tell both his story and that of Roman Polanski's; Polanski is interviewed at length and shown directing the movie as well. Other interviews are with Brody, screenwriter Ronald Harwood, and Polanski's designer and costume person. Polanski's wisdom on all things filmic keeps this show absorbing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Pianist rates: