April 3, 2003


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I watched the Oscars this year with displeasure as, once again, true artists were overlooked in favor of Hollywood politics. The last straws were the wins of Adrien Brody and Roman Polanski, both for The Pianist. This is not to say I thought either man was undeserving. Brody was the only one to hold a candle to Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary Bill the Butcher and did it without benefit of accent, costume, or even much dialogue. Polanski, for his part, was undoubtedly the year’s best director. Why then, am I so angry about their victories? It’s simple: in light of the ad campaign for the film, and the presentation of its clips during the Oscar ceremony, I am forced to conclude that the film which Polanski made and the film which the Academy rewarded are two entirely different entities.

In trailers, TV spots, and print ads, The Pianist is constantly referred to as “the uplifting story of one man’s survival.” The Academy, if their presentation of the film during the ceremony serves as any indication, perceives it as a fable about “the transcendent power of art.” Those who choose to interpret the film as such are willfully ignoring many things, but one most important fact: Roman Polanski, from Chinatown, to his most recent feature, has never made a movie which wasn’t a horror film. It is possible that he does not know how to make anything else. In general, the human mind can only assimilate so much trauma before it shuts down, effectively ignoring what it can’t deal with. Polanski, as much as he can be said to have a signature or theme, works most with those moments after the audience would prefer to look away. He is merciless with his camera, pitiless to his characters and audience.

Polanski has been praised for making a film which depicted a good Nazi and a Jewish protagonist who was a hero instead of a passive victim. To view the film through this lens is to miss the point. Brody’s Szpilman isn’t a hero. He survives not because he’s better, worse or stronger than anyone else, but because he’s lucky. He lives in part because he encounters the good German, who spares him after Szpilman plays Chopin. What would have happened had Szpilman been untalented or the German not a music lover? This scene is not a glimmer of humanity amidst cruelty, but the paradigm of the worst of humanity: under what circumstances should one man’s life be dependent on another’s taste? The scene does contain the one heroic action in the entire film, but it is Szpilman’s. The Nazi asks him who he is, and Szpilman replies “I am a pianist.” That he can answer, that he can verbalize his own existence, that he can do it in his own terms, that he is alive to affirm “I am” is true heroism. But the purpose of the film isn’t to uplift, it’s to remind us that under the right circumstances, we’re capable of anything.

There’s been a veritable explosion of films dealing with the Holocaust in the last ten years. We’ve become well acquainted with the trope, until the unspeakable becomes liturgy: the restrictions, the deportation, the gas chambers, liberation. Every protagonist’s survival is the audience’s own, and glosses over the uncountable dead. But what’s done cannot be undone. Polanski knows that there can be no healing. The Holocaust remains an open wound on the face of history. You can probe it until it bleeds again, perhaps preventing a sequel, or you can let it scab and fester. The film Polanski made chooses the former, the one the Academy saw chose the latter. Go watch Polanki’s film.

Archived article by Erica Stein