Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer
What about the issue of suffering? Doesn’t this prove that there is no God and that we are on our own? Answer
Does God feel our pain? Answer
Did God make the world the way it is now? What kind of world would you create? Answer
Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Ed Stoppard | Directed by: Roman Polanski | Produced by: Roman Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde | Written by: Ronald Harwood, Wladyslaw Szpilman | Distributor: Focus
Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” is perhaps the best film about the Holocaust that I have seen. It spans the period in Warsaw from the beginning of World War II when Germany invaded Poland until the end of the War when Russian troops took control of the Polish capital—a day many Poles describe as the day they lost the war a second time. My only objection to the film is more political than artistic. Polanski seems to give the Russians a pass. The Communists may have eliminated the Nazi terror from Poland, but they lost no time in establishing a vicious totalitarian regime of their own, one which continued to devalue the people and to eliminate almost all freedoms, including the freedom to practice religion. They even banned the very book this movie is based on.
Nonetheless, Polanski, who himself spent his boyhood in Krakow and suffered under the Nazis, presents a vivid portrait of life inside a human nightmare. The bad dreams start as small disturbances, ones that seem almost unworthy of attention, but the insults lead to physical force, and then to violence. Yet each malevolent act, small or grand, has at its root a disregard for humanity and a contempt for God’s will. Under these circumstances, moral order decays leaving only raw will and power to prevail. This is the world the piano player and his compatriots find themselves in.
“The Pianist” is the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, one of Poland’s great 20th Century musicians. The film opens with Wladyslaw playing Chopin for a local radio station. The bombs and the gunfire of the invading blitzkreig stop the program. Chopin would not be heard again in Poland for a long time. Wladyslaw lives comfortably, even nobly, with his family in a Warsaw apartment. They are soon stripped of their possessions and their home and are sent to live in the city’s “ghetto” where Jews are cut off from the rest of society and forced to live in subhuman conditions. Ultimately his family is transported to concentration camps and faces certain extermination, but Szpilman, because of his fame and his connections, escapes their fate and spends the rest of the war hiding from the Nazis in attics, barren apartments, abandoned hospitals, and even locked closets. Because of his fugitive status, he cannot actively participate in the Ghetto resistance and uprisings. Instead, he must watch passively through window cracks while his countrymen defy their tormentors and face swift retribution.
Szpilman is not a classic war hero. He is not Steve McQueen or Audie Murphy. Rather, he’s a flawed man who gets by on luck and charity as much as his wits. The acts of charity (especially on the part of a married couple who work for the Resistance and a German commander whose good deeds save Szpilman’s life) not only change the piano player’s fortunes, they also temper the story’s persistent brutality helping restore faith in and fondness for the human condition.
Polanski portrays each episode in Szpilman’s ordeal starkly and realistically. The narrative is tighter than what you would expect from a memoir. It moves more like a well-plotted short story or a novella than a memory piece. Rarely does the point of view shift away from Szpilman as almost everything is seen through his eyes, and those sights are presented without bravado and without sentimentality. You won’t see any pink-clad little girls dropped in front of a black-and-white background to yank at your heart strings here. In “The Pianist”, a young boy is beaten to death under a fence, but you never see his face. A man in a wheelchair is pushed out a window and falls to his death in a scene filmed from the other side of the street. This rendering of brutality from behind or afar actually makes the atrocity more chilling because the perspective is more authentic. No emphasis needs to be added to these most inhuman of crimes.
The mystery of evil has sparked Roman Polanski’s imaginative powers in horror fantasies such as “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby” and I thought a real life story might limit him. I was wrong. “The Pianist” is a deeply personal film. Polanski uses the tragedy and the turmoil of his own experience to tell us a good story about survival in impossible times.
The acting in “The Pianist” is uniformly fine. Adrien Brody has wide set deep eyes and a long sorrowful face. His countenance looks like it’s ready to take on all the ills and the sorrows of the world, and his performance proves him up to the task. From self-satisfied musician to hunted and hungry animal, he not only brings Szpilman to life, he embodies a civilization whose landscape may be ravaged but whose soul survives and flourishes.