Roman Polanski’s The Pianist may be almost the first Holocaust film in a decade that doesn’t play like a footnote to Schindler’s List. It’s tempting to compare and contrast these two masterpieces, and even more tempting to make a case as to why one is superior to the other (a case could easily be made either way). In the end, though, neither film begs or needs the comparison. Each stands alone, a towering artistic attempt to shed cinematic light on one of the darkest episodes in human history.
Polanski, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, was one of a number of directors to whom Steven Spielberg offered Schindler’s List before finally deciding to direct it himself. Polanski turned down that opportunity to make a Holocaust-themed film, feeling that he was too close to the material. Great art requires a level of artistic objectivity, or it runs the risk of descending into mere propaganda; and at the time Polanski felt he was unable to achieve that objectivity.
Now, almost ten years later, Polanski has finally faced his demons and made a film of almost ferocious objectivity — a film devoid of even the smell of polemicism, sentimentality, melodrama, or cliché. Not a celebration of the human spirit, resisting both deceptive moral uplift and despairing moral nihilism, neither demonizing the Germans nor lionizing the Jews, The Pianist is a work of exquisite restraint. Any misstep might have resulted in reducing the horror of genocide to a prop in a morality-play, but Polanski surefootedly avoids every trap and temptation in his path.
The Pianist tells the true story of Wladislaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), like Polanski an artist as well as a Polish Jew. Like many Jewish intellectuals at that time and place, Szpilman starts out watching the brewing storm with a level of complacent denial, hardly able to imagine what it will mean for him. Later, when he is asked, "What will you do after the war?" his answer is simple: "Play the piano again." Szpilman wants to live to play again, as Polanski, a child of seven when his father pushed him through a barbed-wire fence to fend for himself in the Nazi-occupied streets of Warsaw, lived to become a filmmaker and make movies.
For Szpilman, as for the young Polanski, survival will be largely a matter of chance and providence, not heroism or accomplishment. What matters in the end, for one who happens to survive, is not the particular circumstances of one’s survival, but simply the fact of one’s survival — the fact that that the unimaginable is past and one can again participate in the life of civilization.
Several factors make The Pianist unique among Holocaust films. The story focuses on one individual, yet manages to encompass a remarkably lucid and thorough timeline of key events from 1939 to 1945. Surprisingly, the drama doesn’t ultimately turn to the concentration camps, instead focusing on the ongoing horror in and around the Warsaw ghetto.
The film’s most extraordinary aspect is its second half, in which all narrative expectations break down as the story heads into uncharted waters. At this point Adrien Brody’s singular performance, combined with his physical transformation, may inspire references to Tom Hanks’s one-man show in Cast Away; but here the performance is at the service of the story rather than the other way around, and Brody’s restrained and unshowy performance holds the screen without calling attention to itself.
The unpredictability of this second half comes to a head in a sickening twist of circumstances that anyone can see coming but the outcome of which is impossible to call, unless you know in advance how the story ends. At precisely a moment when there is no reason for anyone to be in danger, a stupid combination of factors suddenly ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable level, as Polanski confronts us with the specter of an unthinkably tragic turn of events.
Polanski takes a direct, unfussy approach to the material, refraining from playing on the viewer’s nervous system with such cinematic tricks as handheld cameras, rapid editing, reliance on musical cues, and so forth. Instead of always putting the audience in the middle of the action, Polanski shows us everything through Szpilman’s eyes, much of the time focusing on events in which Szpilman is not personally involved but only witnesses, often through windows. For example, when the 1943 ghetto uprising takes place, we see only what can be seen from the window of the flat in which Szpilman is hiding, and then only when he happens to be looking out the window.
This, of course, isn’t the most visceral or horrifying way of presenting such events — though The Pianist contains images as uniquely and indelibly horrifying as anything we’ve seen in any film. But Polanski isn’t interested in mere emotional impact. He’s giving us a human perspective on the story, rather than an omniscient one. The restraint we feel in even some of The Pianist’s most horrific moments represents the necessary distance of an eyewitness who was neither one of the perpetrators nor their targets. And, after all, we ourselves are watching the film from the safety of our local theater or even our living room; it’s appropriate that we should be reminded that this is not our story.
In doing all of this, Polanski gives us room to do more than respond emotionally — to contemplate what we are seeing. Some viewers have found The Pianist too emotionally restrained in contrast to a film like Schindler’s List, which can be a profoundly draining experience to watch; but this, I believe, is to misunderstand the character and achievement of this film.
The Pianist is not about outrage and triumph, good and evil, cowardice and courage. It is simply, starkly about life and death, civilization and chaos. It doesn’t ultimately explain or illuminate the evil of the Holocaust, any more than does Szpilman’s music or any other work of art. Yet its very existence is a negation of that failed program of annihilation.
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In your review of The Pianist, you wrote, “neither demonizing the Germans nor lionizing the Jews, The Pianist is a work of exquisite restraint.”
Did we see the same film? I watched this film last month, not realizing until late that he was a real person and this was a real story. Until the end, every German was demonized and every Jew (save a scant few) were the “meek”, watching in distress what they saw and heard (and allowed to happen). I came away from the first 4/5ths of this film wondering if God viewed these Jews as perfect persecuted, peaceful lambs or rolling His eyes over their choice to love life but not fight to the death for it. I actually came away with less respect for both the German occupiers (if that’s possible) but also less for the Jews.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.