January 30, 2003

Polanski Faces the Past

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Polanski’s The Pianist is a decisive victory for the believers in historical film and traditional subjects; a fierce and confrontational assault on the ranks of postmodern/nonsensical movies. The Pianist is the sort of movie that explains why the medium was invented, serving as proof of film’s ability to render history intelligible. It allows the observation of a period that would probably only be successfully broached via the detail and ambition of a fictional movie.

Based on the memoirs of Wladyskiw Szpilman, The Pianist utilizes Szpilman (Adrien Brody) as a point of entry, a locus for the film. Szpilman is a bourgeois Polish pianist during the beginning of the Nazi occupation and his family’s income and faith rapidly deteriorate throughout the war. The eventual construction of the squalid Warsaw Ghetto leaves only cynicism and despondency. The movie itself is as wry and distant as Brody’s countenance. The Jewish resistance movements within the ghetto, organizations that are the focus of similar Holocaust movies, are shot (by cinematographer Pawel Edelman) at splintered angles that purposefully obscure the actions as if they were incidental or deceptive. For Polanski, any heroism or hope distorts the Holocaust. To present the Holocaust as a lesson of faith and enduring spirituality, even if was for a select few, is to manifestly endow the catastrophe with characteristics that have no place in such barbarism.

Although an elliptical ending forbids any concretely bleak conclusion, there is no Schindler here, no redemption, no maudlin soundtrack to alleviate the depravity. Unlike Schindler’s List, a movie that The Pianist begs comparison to (if only because of similar length and ambition), there are no miracles of survival, only parodies of it. If the movie seems implausible, it is only because history is implausible, a fact that more sanguine Holocaust movies have attempted to filter with more overtly dramatic characters, preposterous romantics and courageous revolutionaries.

While The Pianist does introduce such typical characters, it is only so the Nazis can remove the actual subjects of affection and any lingering memory of them. Indeed, Brody plays Szpilman as an unglamorous character, not especially intelligent, moral, or passionate. As he avoids the trains to Auschwitz through pure luck and seeks shelter in the dilapidated shells of his former neighborhood’s homes, Brody resembles less a determined rebel of upstanding morality than a dissipated capsule, devoid of emotion, thought, or ethics, merely relying on an instinctual drive for survival. Watching Szpilman limp and flounder through skeletal ruins, stuttering and grasping a jar of pickles as if it contains salvation, is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s Jewish tramp in The Great Dictator — his fumbled walks and muscle spasms played for laughs. It’s as if Polanski’s insidiously subtle pitch-black humor is saying that even after the Nazis have left Poland, such maliciousness can never be entirely extracted. Existence continues to be a travesty, a humiliating force that has been debilitating Polanski’s protagonists since his start in Polish cinema. Once again, Polanski has discarded most superficialities, creating a movie that one cannot particularly enjoy, but nevertheless feels obligated to watch.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt