Roman's Restraint 

A review of The Pianist

click to enlarge Adrien Brody as Szpilman
  • Adrien Brody as Szpilman

*The Pianist
Focus Features

Recognizing that the prospect of another Holocaust film is hardly a night with Kangaroo Jack (no disrespect to fugitive marsupials), do make the effort to see The Pianist before it departs Kimball's Twin for a lonelier art house.

Neither epic nor art film, Roman Polanski's latest effort could almost be lumped into the action oeuvre as it is largely a protracted Nazi-Jew chase narrative. And yet there's a higher intelligence at work to this near masterpiece that rightfully took the Pomme D'or at Cannes last spring. I found myself silently cheering for Roman as he paralyzed me with dread while dodging clichs and the moral didacticism that's nearly endemic to the subject matter.

The Pianist was adapted from the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist who spent World War II fleeing German soldiers in the Warsaw ghetto. Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is content to play Chopin for Polish radio until the war literally blows him from his chair. In short order, he and his well-to-do family are herded into the Warsaw ghetto, where they suffer a host of indignities while struggling to stave off nihilism and despair.

Many artists, like playwright David Mamet, believe it is wrong to make art about the Holocaust. For all a filmmaker's good intentions, this argument goes, a non-exploitative means of representation cannot exist: The only appropriate response is silence.

Purveyors of this theory lose me in their failure to extend it to other atrocities. Should artists remain silent on Bosnia? Rwanda? Joe Millionaire? I wonder if Mamet and others would deny Polanski -- who spent his boyhood dodging Nazi bullets -- a chance to confront his own past.

Even if Polanski were not a survivor, his filmmaking manages to record atrocity after atrocity without perverting it into spectacle (ala Schindler's List) or buffoonery (ala Life Is Beautiful). Practically every scene in the Warsaw ghetto -- where roughly 350,000 Polish Jews were corralled -- features humanity at its most degraded. Adrien Brody and other ghetto denizens step over corpses as though they were gum on the sidewalk. In one instance, a man struggles with an elderly woman for her pot of stew. When it spills to the street, the thief savagely laps it from the pavement.

Polanski's films have been characterized by a distanced view of characters and events and his raw honesty extends to Szpilman, who is never elevated to the sanctity of hero. He does not MacGyver his way to liberation, but merely lets himself be saved. When others can no longer provide for him, he squirrels into bombed out buildings foraging for food like a rodent, playing dead in the street when necessary, and waiting out the storm of war as alone as a man can be.

Szpilman is hidden by resistance members in various apartments where he watches the Warsaw uprising play out from his window. But watching, like most people, is all he does. The Pianist's startling originality is in its exploration of how an individual can be plundered by history, and then proceed to live at its core while remaining utterly inconsequential to it.

Polanski shows that the Holocaust is more astonishing in its frankness than in its febrile grandeur and that a survivor is not necessarily a martyr, merely a witness to the depravity of human nature.

-- John Dicker


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