"Staggering but very personal"
Dir. Roman Polanski; writ. Wladyslaw Szpilman (book), Ronald Harwood; feat. Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Ed Stoppard (R)
As the early word about Roman Polanski's The Pianist has trickled in from the coasts - the awards, the top 10 lists, the glowing reviews - some film buffs have been resistant to the buzz. These are people who feel they have seen enough Holocaust dramas to get the message, who say that however powerful The Pianist is, they've gotten as close as they can get to understanding what Jews went through in World War II.
Never mind that this rationale doesn't keep them from going to movies about happy lovers, vengeful cops, or runaway meteors. Even allowing the notion that the Holocaust is a finite well for drama, The Pianist proves that the well hasn't yet come close to drying up.
For one thing, the film (based on the real life of a Warsaw concert pianist) approaches the suffering of Polish Jews in a surprisingly understated way. The central character, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a man accustomed to moving in refined circles, and while we may be shocked when one of his radio performances is interrupted by a bombing raid, we don't feel the irrefutable creep of history until some time later: Szpilman's courtship of a pretty blonde fan is derailed when he is denied entry into a favorite cafe.
The grace with which he handles that rejection makes Szpilman a real human being instead of a dummy on which to hang a million indignities, and each of the incremental humiliations that follow are depicted with the same sensitivity: An older man is stopped on the sidewalk because he didn't bow to passing soldiers - he swallows his pride and appeases them, only to be told he must continue his walk in the gutter. Szpilman's family and friends react to these developments in much the same way you or I might - this is outrageous, they say, but what are you going to do? - until the petty erosion of their rights gives way to real horror.
When humiliation becomes extermination, The Pianist turns into a fugitive story. Because he knows the right person, Szpilman is able to slip out of a line that would have led him to a concentration camp. From this point on, and without any apparent larger plan, he seems content to stay one step ahead of death: just out of the wrong line-up, just around the corner from the Nazis, just over the ghetto's wall. This plays less like a thriller designed to make you bite your nails than as a portrait of genuine bewilderment; a man who has always navigated his world with ease is suddenly at the mercy of sympathetic Gentiles - and, in one clock-stopping moment, of a Nazi officer.
It seems important not to reveal much about what happens to this man; watching Szpilman's story without already knowing it makes for a much richer experience. But viewers should be assured that Polanski treats his protagonist with great respect. There are two moments in the tale that seem like set-ups for horribly cruel punch lines; in a certain kind of artfully bleak film, Szpilman would die in an avalanche of irony that served only to bolster the filmmakers' sense of cleverness and the audience's hatred for the filmmakers. The Pianist isn't that sort of film.
It is, however, the kind of film in which an artist uses his own experiences for the sake of a story, instead of using a story to advertise his own memoirs. Polanski escaped the Cracow ghetto when he was 7 years old, and his depiction of ghetto life is overwhelmingly convincing. He will be praised in print and by prize-givers for it, but he refuses to congratulate himself within the film - which is entirely devoted to a very different experience, the mutation of a sophisticated adult into an animal whose only thought is survival. Brody is so convincing in this transformation, and so adept at showing how Szpilman's soul retreats into the hidden crannies of his psyche, that the film becomes far larger than the filmmaker - and, Holocaust-film-fatigue notwithstanding, larger than the genre that contains it.