Opens Fri Jan 3
It's always been something of a game for film buffs to try and gauge the amount of autobiography in the films of Roman Polanski. This is due in part to the nature of what we expect from our great artists, and also in part to the fact that Polanski is a uniquely fascinating man whose life offers an endless parade of voyeuristic interest. And now, after spending a career avoiding the subject, Roman Polanski has made a film about the Nazis in Poland. Not surprisingly, it's his best film since Chinatown. Also not surprisingly, since this is Polanski, The Pianist faces down the story of the Final Solution with a frankness that freezes the blood.
Before he was a world-famous filmmaker/ playboy/widower/sex offender/exile, Polanski was a middle-class Jewish boy on the streets of Kraków and Warsaw who watched as the Nazis steered his family into ghettos, stripped them of their belongings and dignity, and eventually killed most of them, including his mother. And though The Pianist is not, strictly speaking, the story of the Polanskis, it carries enough firsthand detail and sharply observed horror to dispel any idea of objectivity.
For obvious reasons, the Holocaust is the most challenging source material for a work of art--especially when the artist is a survivor. The temptation toward sentimentality is massive, and nothing about the emotion of the situation is unearned. The challenge, then, lies not in saying something new, but in finding a tone that contains the requisite moral outrage while avoiding the sanctimony and bathos that disgrace the memory of the six million. And though you can call Roman Polanski many things, a sentimentalist is not one of them. His film's genius lies not in the artfulness of its brutality, but in the subjectivity of its perspective.
When we first meet Wladislaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody, in a transcendent performance), he is performing a Chopin sonata on a radio broadcast. Within moments, German shells start exploding outside the studio. His engineer signals to him to stop, but he refuses. The blasts get bigger and closer, until eventually they shatter the glass of the control room and slice the pianist's forehead. This is the first scene of the film, and already Polanski has established the reality of the times, the nature of the main character, and the central recurring metaphor: the encroachment of the war onto every last fragment of Jewish civilization.
What follows is the methodical decimation of the bourgeois class of Polish Jewry, and Polanski puts the emphasis on just how methodical it was. First come the money laws, then the housing laws, employment laws, and so forth, until Jewishness itself is finally revealed as the ultimate crime. Throughout this process, Szpilman maintains a cosmopolitan arrogance and a haughty disregard for the looming menace. He is, after all, a famous musician, a gentleman, a lover; he simply refuses to admit that he must change his life--or worse, fight for it. The first cracks show when he invites an attractive female fan to coffee and discovers a "NO JEWS" sign on the cafe window. It's not long before he must relocate to the ghetto, where he is reduced to playing background music in a restaurant for the last of the wealthy Jews.
He will be reduced even further--further than he, or we, can imagine possible for such a handsome, urbane artist. Before the grueling end of The Pianist, he will become the very picture of subhumanity that Nazis painted of the Jews; come winter of 1944, Szpilman, who has miraculously escaped the ghettos and camps, limps and scurries through the silent, expressionistic wreckage of Warsaw.
Despite appearances to the contrary, the film is not about the indomitable spirit of a survivor. It's about how low a human being can sink in order to live, and the depths of abasement a race is capable of withstanding in order to avoid extinction. There's no heroism in the picture, and all redemption is tempered by the knowledge of what's coming next. It's here, in the deeply Eastern European black comedy of this knowledge, that the film and its maker mark their territory most boldly. (Reassuring the Poles that "the Russians will be here soon" is a classic Polanski irony.) For all the possible autobiography of the story, The Pianist is most personal when it stares into the abyss of the Holocaust and finds nothing looking back.