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Historical Testimony with Personal Reminiscence; Polanski’s “The Pianist”

Historical Testimony with Personal Reminiscence; Polanski's "The Pianist"

Historical Testimony with Personal Reminiscence; Polanski’s “The Pianist”

by Erica Abeel

Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in “The Pianist.

© 2002 Focus Features

In a quick scene, barely visible in the gathering dusk, a boy struggles to
scramble to safety through a breach in the wall surrounding the Warsaw
ghetto. This incident from “The Pianist” echoes Roman
own escape at the age of seven through a hole in a
barbed-wire fence around the Kracow ghetto — only in the film, the boy

Such details culled from Polanski’s life bring to “The Pianist” a cruel
sense of the absurdity of individual survival in Nazi-occupied Poland. It’s
a world Polanski has wanted to explore for 40 years. Yet because the
Holocaust cut so close to his own childhood in war-torn Europe, he could
gain the necessary distance only by distilling it through the memoir of
Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jewish pianist who recounted his survival
during WWII, from the brutal occupation, to his years in hiding in the
devastated Warsaw Ghetto, to the improbable help of a German officer in the
war’s final days.

The result is a powerfully affecting film, Polanski’s return to form after
the 1999 schlocker “The Ninth Gate,” and his best effort since
“Chinatown.” Classically structured and conventionally shot, it
dispenses with such flourishes as shaky cameras, pseudo doc effects, or
“cinematic” touches of little girls in red a la “Schindler’s List.”
Polanski’s willingness to stand out of his own way brilliantly serves a film
that celebrates not only one man’s survival, but the very instinct to

Patterned on Szpilman’s text, yet leavened with Polanski’s memories, the
opening in 1939 finds Adrien Brody’s elegant, ascetic-looking pianist
recording Chopin’s C minor Nocturne for Warsaw Radio when the Luftwaffe
dive-bombs Warsaw. Cut to the Szpilman family, poignantly conjuring clever
places to hide their valuables from the invaders. From there Polanski
unscrolls, in his words, the “book of martyrdom we all know.” He shapes the
narrative around milestone dates flashed onscreen, moving from October 31,
1940, when the Jews are herded into the ghetto (where for a time Szpilman
scrapes by playing piano in a cafe); to July 1942 and the mass deportations
for Treblinka; to an insurrection in the ghetto on April 19, 1943; to the
arrival in January 1945 of the victorious Red Army.

On August 16, 1942, as German guards force the crowd, including Szpilman’s
family, onto the cattle cars, a Jewish cop/collaborator who admires
Szpilman’s music plucks him from death by shoving him out of the line.
Szpilman disappears into the madness and horror of the deserted ghetto
littered with corpses and abandoned suitcases, a lone ghost. The film’s
second half follows him as he continuously outwits death, a glance, a sigh,
a heartbeat away from the Nazis. Fleeing the ghetto, Szpilman hides out in
Warsaw, helped by pre-war musical acquaintances and the Polish underground,
scuttling from one refuge to another.

Brody (who dropped 30 pounds for the role, and was reportedly chosen over
more than 1400 applicants) delivers an uncanny turn, so merging with his
character that we cease to see an actor. Deprivation and illness inflecting
his delicate, haunted features, he wanders through the ghetto’s cratered
terrain, at one point feigning death by lying among corpses in the street.
Even reduced to a starving feral creature foraging for food, Szpilman never
loses his dignity; he embodies the human superiority to fate celebrated by
Pascal. Toward war’s end, the bearded, emaciated spectre is discovered by a
German officer who, rather than shoot him, commands him to play an abandoned
piano. It’s safe to say Chopin has never been heard in this spirit. Breath
visible in the arctic air, a wan beam of light catching his face, Szpilman
literally plays for his life.

Though “Pianist” marks Polanski’s first frontal approach to the Holocaust —
and his first film shot in Poland in 40 years — it beams a fascinating
light on his earlier films. In fact, the wartime horrors conveyed in
“Pianist” might be seen as the poisoned well that fed a past oeuvre obsessed
with the mechanisms of evil, cruelty, madness, and fear. The supernatural
hells that haunted Polanski in “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Ninth Gate”
must have emanated from the earthly hell limned in “Pianist.” The
filmmaker’s trademark claustrophobia, which marked such early works as
“Repulsion” and “Cul de Sac,” are echoed as Szpilman, eluding
the enemy, is virtually imprisoned in silent, sealed rooms, at one point
becoming entombed in a hearth behind bookcases. Even the ubiquitous Polanski
knife morphs from the shiv that scored Jake Gittes, to the Nazi blade
slashing potato sacks concealing a cache of guns for the Resistance.

Despite its big win in Cannes, “Pianist” has not been immune to
criticism. It’s been objected that the reprise of historically familiar
events in the Ghetto lacks originality. This raises the ever-vexing issue of
the Holocaust as entertainment. But is “been there, done that” an
appropriate standard for judging such material? Familiar though the events
may be, the evil underpinning them remains unfathomable; on that level alone
the film compels interest.

Or have filmgoers become so overexposed by the Holocaust “industry,” as it’s
been called, that the impact of the Shoah has gotten muted? Well, at least
Nazi ingenuity can be counted upon to furnish an endless supply of fresh
details. Take your pick from the revelry of drunk, red-faced German officers
celebrating New Year’s Eve by beating up Jews. Or the woman devastated after
she inadvertently smothered her baby to keep it hidden from the Gestapo. Or
the officer who randomly selects ghetto inmates from a work detail, orders
them to lie face down on the ground and shoots them — then, running out of
bullets for the last man, irritatedly, methodically re-cocks his gun as the
man lies waiting. (Perhaps W.C. Sebald, the German novelist, took the most
esthetically sustainable approach to the Shoah by referring to it in his
fiction only obliquely, maintaining “no one could bear to look at these
things without losing their sanity.”)

It could be objected, too, that the second half of “Pianist” is little more
than an extended cat-and-mouse game between Spzilman and the Nazis. Worse,
Szpilman remains opaque, with little of the character arc de rigueur in
cinema. A man of few lines, the most memorable is an admission to his
sister, during the forced march to the trains, “I wish I knew you better.”
Yet Polanski’s omission of deep characterization is itself a barbed
statement and revelation, reflecting the reality of the film’s world. A man
caught in Szpilman’s plight becomes voided of individuality, reduced to an
engine mobilized to keep alive, without the luxury of personality, or any
emotion beyond fear.

In the end, the film transcends its seeming flaws, engaging the viewer even
during static stretches repeating Szpilman’s efforts to win one more day on
earth. Who would not identify? And Polanski has wisely chosen to shoot
through Szipilman’s limited point of view, so events play as fresh and
lived, rather than as animated history. (The Ghetto uprising, for example,
is viewed catty-cornered from Szpilman’s cramped hideout, as he watches
Jewish resisters flushed from a flaming building by the German juggernaut.)

Production designer Allan Starski (“Schindler’s List”) has conjured
an astounding reconstruction of wartime Poland, pieced together in part from
remaining streets and buildings in a neighboring district of Warsaw, or
recreated on the backlot of Studio Babelsberg in Berlin. Starski and team
move with equal assurance from the Mitteleuropean comforts of the Szpilman
home prior to the war, to the world of the Ghetto, through the degradation
of living conditions, to the extinction of its inhabitants. Every face,
garment, and jackboot looks real. The film is shot in a monochrome sepia
that creates both historical distance and a pervasive sense of doom. Never
has winter light looked so cruel, or the August sun in the infamous
Umschlagplatz, where the Jews waited prior to deportation, so mocking. The
film even manages moments of desolate poetry, as when the feverish Szpilman,
imprisoned in a room with a piano, but condemned to silence, “hears” a
sonata as snow swirls outside. The most jaw-dropping vision, though, is the
final nightmarish moonscape of the ruins of Warsaw, with only a few bent
lampposts standing (and the only scene that smacks of computer generation.)

Finally, “The Pianist” triumphs through its accumulation of indelible
details: Szpilman’s family watching from their window as the Germans arrive
in the night and heave an old man in his wheel chair over the balcony; the
Szpilmans in the Umschlagplatz, hungrily watching the father slice (the
Polanski knife again) a single caramel into five pieces. And the last
absurdity — and gallows humor — of Szpilman, wearing the German officer’s
coat, nearly getting shot by the Russians. Polanski rightly intuited that no
Hollwood make-believe could enhance such scenes. By infusing historical
testimony with personal reminiscence, he has created in “Pianist” a genre
apart. Ironically, considering the filmmaker’s personal notoriety, it’s the
purity of this film, its transparent style and refusal to pander, which make
it both devastating and exhilarating.

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