In Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," nothing is more absurd or surreal than war.
Based on a memoir by a Polish Jew who survived the Warsaw ghetto, the composer and concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, the film opens on Sept. 23, 1939. Germany had invaded Poland weeks earlier, but the pianist had continued to give recitals on Warsaw Radio, stepping over corpses and dead horses on his way to the broadcast studio. That September afternoon, he played a Chopin nocturne as the Luftwaffe rained bombs on the city; the noise was so deafening he could barely hear himself play. Several days later, Warsaw fell and he saw his first German soldiers. Not long afterward he read his first Nazi proclamation targeted at Jews. "Their lives," read the decree, "would be absolutely secure."
Szpilman published his memoir in 1946. It was too soon after the war for him to cushion his language with politesse and the book is at once tough and tough going, shocking in its directness and its chilled lack of sentimentalism. A memoir written by a man for whom history is not dead and is yet littered with the dead, it is a book that doesn't obviously lend itself to cinematic interpretation. It is never easy to watch people suffer and die without even the glimmer of hope, which makes it extraordinary that Polanski, another Polish Jew who survived, has been able to bring Szpilman's detachment to the screen. All the more so given that "The Pianist" achieves the monumental without abandoning the modesty of its origins.
Shortly after Poland surrenders, the 27-year-old Szpilman (Adrien Brody), his two sisters, brother and parents make the calamitous decision to stay in Warsaw. Clustered around the radio and hearing that Britain and France have joined against Germany, they reason "all will be well." All is not well, although it takes a while for the Nazis' second war, the one against the Jews, to surface in its violent extravagance, since it is a war initially waged with rules and regulations and only spasms of terror. Jews are to wear a precisely measured white armband branded with the Star of David on their right arms. Jews are forbidden to enter Warsaw's parks, sit on its benches or stroll along its sidewalks. They must use the gutter or, as Szpilman's father (Frank Finlay) discovers, risk the wrath of passing German soldiers.
Inch by inch, Jews are removed from the city's public life, then literally removed from its streets, herded together in a ghetto. Forced to abandon their apartment, the Szpilmans crowd into a few rooms and, along with the nearly half a million other Jews crammed into the ghetto's 1.3 square miles, they struggle for survival. As the pianist plays in a cafe frequented by profiteers, again stepping around corpses on his way to work, his younger brother, Henryk (Ed Stoppard), sells the family's books in a market frantic with desperation. On a good day, Henryk sells a copy of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot." On a bad night, the family watches in mute horror as Nazis dump an elderly neighbor out a fourth-floor window because the man, confined to a wheelchair, has not stood to salute them.
Life inside the ghetto was initially a mirror of life outside, only more terrible. As the Szpilman family clings to the remnants of their middle-class past, the rich laugh it up in exclusive cafes while the poor drop dead in their tracks. As he does throughout the film, Polanski refuses to linger over any of this. He doesn't want us to get caught up in isolated incidents -- to get blindsided by the harrowing image of a tiny child smuggler whom Szpilman tries to rescue or the sight of a starving beggar licking gruel off the pavement -- because he doesn't want us distracted by emotion. Our tears, the director seems to be saying, shouldn't get in the way of our understanding.
The late critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that Polanski is "totally armored against sentiment," and that serves the director brilliantly in "The Pianist." This armature allows Polanski to focus on Szpilman without losing sight of the larger devastation and, as important, it gives the director the intellectual distance to point out not just the tragedy of the Shoah but its inherent surrealism. "It's too absurd," one of Szpilman's friends says plaintively, as she watches Warsaw's Jews marched into the ghetto. "The Germans will never squander such a huge labor force," says an old man quite reasonably, waving away rumors of extermination hours before he's whisked off to a camp. Never before has a fiction film so clearly and to such devastating effect laid out the calculation of the Nazi machinery of death and its irrationality.
As the war grinds on and food becomes increasingly scarce, Szpilman begins to shrink inside his suit. Brody's large eyes grow positively enormous even as his performance remains delicate, muted. The pianist tries to join the resistance, only to be rebuffed. "You musicians," a partisan smiles, "don't make good conspirators." The instinct for survival, Polanski reminds us repeatedly, puts a lie to heroic fantasy. In this nightmarish world where corpses litter the streets, the bodies of dead Jews serve as a continual threats and reminders for the living. Through administrative measures and the spectacle of terror the Nazis strip away resistance. Like everyone else, the Szpilmans believe their survival hinges on their cooperation. So they scramble for work permits they won't need and, when the order for deportation comes, pack suitcases they can't bring.
There are, perhaps, a limited number of ways to narrate the catastrophe of the Holocaust. One way is to present the overwhelming evidence as Raul Hilberg does in "The Destruction of the European Jews" and Claude Lanzmann does in his documentary "Shoah." Another way is to filter some of that evidence through the experience of an individual. Polanski, who escaped the Krakow ghetto when he was a child, has spent his entire filmmaking career making movies that, steeped in alienation and paranoia, carry traces of the Holocaust. This time, faced with the historical event, he tempers his style, and the alienation and paranoia creep in from the outside, unescorted and relentless. With "The Pianist," Polanski's strange genius serves Szpilman's remembrance and, in doing so, rescues his legacy from the blunder of much of the director's recent work.
We know that Szpilman survived. In his book and in Polanski's telling, the musician's tortuous journey is neither triumphant nor beautiful; it is, rather, a testament to the essential human desire to live. In one of the more eccentric passages in "The Pianist," Szpilman simply watches the war unfold while peeping from behind a window curtain. Every so often, a Polish man who's meant to regularly supply him with provisions but rarely shows, drops by the apartment with a few crumbs. "Still alive, then," he says, with a wild smile. The pianist registers the comment and shoots the man a quick look in which disbelief fights with disgust and hunger. Then the pianist does what anyone would. He picks up some food and begins to eat.
MPAA rating: R for violence and brief strong language.
Times guidelines: Graphic violence and emotionally wrenching scenes.
Adrien Brody ... Wladyslaw Szpilman
Ed Stoppard ... Henryk
Maureen Lipman ... The mother
Frank Finlay ... The father
Emilia Fox ... Dorota
Thomas Kretschmann ... Capt. Wilm Hosenfeld
Alain Sarde and Robert Benmussa present a Roman Polanski film, released by Focus Features. Director Roman Polanski. Writer Ronald Harwood. Based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman. Director of photography Pawel Edelman. Production designer Allan Starski. Editor Herve de Luze. Costume designer Anna Sheppard. Music Wojciech Kilar. Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes.
Exclusively at Loews Cineplex. Century Plaza Cinemas, Century City, 2040 Ave. of the Stars (800) 555-8355.
A remembrance of the Warsaw ghetto rescues the director's legacy from the blunder of much of his recent work.
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