Probably no filmmaker working today is so uniquely qualified to make a film about the Holocaust as Roman Polanski. The director himself lived through those years as a young Jewish man in Poland, his own mother dying in the Nazi gas chambers. It’s natural that he should turn his attention to the subject with this film version of the autobiography of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman.
The resulting film is one of the best — if not the best — on the subject. Though it inevitably invites comparisons with Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Polanski’s is a very different film, and a more deeply disturbing one that does not get the importance of its subject tangled up with the importance of the film itself. (This is perhaps why Polanski turned down Spielberg’s original offer that he should direct Schindler’s List.) However sincere and well-intentioned Spielberg’s film may be, it’s too clearly the work of a man deliberately making a movie in an effort to be taken more “seriously.”
Polanski — regardless of how you feel about his work — has no need of proving himself a serious filmmaker. Moreover, Spielberg’s film is essentially an outsider’s view; Polanski’s is an insider’s take, and in more ways than one. It isn’t just that Polanski was himself there, but also that The Pianist is taken from a first-person story of a person who lived through those ghastly times; what we see on the screen is a depiction of what Szpilman saw. There are no great heroes here — only persecutors, victims and survivors. Even more, there are numerous instances of things being left open-ended. People are ripped out of Szpilman’s life and are simply never seen again — don’t expect the narrative to branch off and follow their fates. Szpilman wasn’t able to experience this kind of closure in the Warsaw ghetto, and Polanski’s film is respectful of this. Such a lack of tidying up is part of what makes The Pianist such a disturbing work.
Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is an unusual character, and Polanski nails this in the film’s opening scene with Szpilman in a radio studio when the first Nazi bombs fall on Warsaw. Rather than flee in terror, Szpilman keeps right on playing music — mindless of the fact that the broadcast is obviously ruined, and that no one is likely to still be listening. It’s key to realize that this is not a show of heroics on Szpilman’s part. Rather, this is a man who is totally absorbed in his own world — a man who simply doesn’t acknowledge what’s going on outside, or that his own world could possibly change. He clings to his normal world because he can’t imagine it otherwise.
Szpilman’s entire attitude is summed up by his declaration at one point that he isn’t going anywhere. He remains calm and even somewhat complacent about the invasion of the Nazis, thinking that the English and French will quickly defeat the enemy. He tries to ignore what is taking place until he can simply ignore it no more — until he and his family are stripped of their belongings and moved into the Warsaw ghetto. Even as it becomes impossible any longer for him to tune out the war and the extermination of his people, Szpilman never turns heroic. He simply survives — and not on his own.
Szpilman is kept from boarding a train that would have led to his death with the rest of his family by a strangely sympathetic Nazi collaborator (part of a traitorous Jewish police force created by the Nazis), and he is later aided by other concentration-camp prisoners in escaping, and then is hidden outside the ghetto by other compassionate souls. This is not a movie about cleverly avoiding Nazi capture; it’s about chance and luck and the kindness of others. It’s a movie about surviving — and even more, it’s about the indomitability of the human spirit.
Polanski deftly sketches Szpilman’s experiences in numerous — often heartbreaking — ways. Perhaps the film’s most touching scene is a “last meal” for his family, where they pay an exorbitant price (by pooling their funds) for a single caramel that is then carefully divided among them. The most pathetic scene may be the image of the ill and defeated Szpilman tenaciously clinging to a large can of pickles in the hope of finding some way to open it. The most moving moment is when Szpilman is asked to prove his skills as a pianist for a sympathetic Nazi officer.
Polanski admirers may find the film somewhat lacking in his characteristic personal style — the business with the can of pickles and a misunderstanding involving Szpilman in a German officer’s coat are the most identifiably Polanski-esque elements in the film — but this appears to be a case where the filmmaker is content to simply present the story in the most effective way possible. What is personal to Polanski is inherent in the material, and he respects the material enough to let it speak for itself. And speak it does – eloquently, shatteringly, tragically, but in a manner that finally celebrates life and the mere act of surviving as heroic on its own merits.