At the risk of being called an anti-Semite, I would like to propose a moratorium on Holocaust movies. According to the Christian Science Monitor, there have been 170 movies on the Holocaust in the past 13 years–no other historic subject has received such an extraordinary cinematic focus. While it would be crass to discount the importance of the subject, at the same time one has to admit there is some degree of excess going on here.
The latest film on the subject is “The Pianist,” which is Roman Polanski’s new work and his first production made in his native Poland since his 1962 breakthrough “Knife in the Water.” “The Pianist” is based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish composer and pianist who survived the deprivation of the Warsaw Ghetto and escaped deportation to Treblinka, barely surviving in a series of safe locations and abandoned buildings within Nazi-occupied Warsaw for two-and-a-half years. At many times, Szpilman’s survival came by extraordinary accident and chance encounters, including a German officer who inexplicably provided him with food and shelter during the final days of the Warsaw occupation.
While Szpliman’s story and will to stay alive was truly remarkable, the problem with “The Pianist” is the problem with the genre itself: if you’ve seen “Schindler’s List” or The Shop on Main Street or Life is Beautiful or “The Hiding Place” or “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” or “The Diary of Anne Frank” or “Europa, Europa” or either the German or American version of Jakob the Liar or “The Grey Zone” or “Shoah” or “As If it was Yesterday” or “The Boat is Full” or the TV mini-series “Holocaust” or “Kapo” or “The Pawnbroker” or “The Man in the Glass Booth” or “Night and Fog” or any of the other hundred-odd films on the Holocaust, then you’ve seen “The Pianist.” Believe me, it’s all there on the screen…and you’ve seen it all before.
However, “The Pianist” offers two very unusual elements not common to this genre (and for very good reason). The first is the strange emphasis on the role of the Jewish auxiliary police used by the Nazis to keep order in the ghetto. These individuals (identified as “collaborators” in the film’s press notes) are shown to be as thuggish as their Nazi overlords, though their level of importance is fairly overdone here. Second and more disturbing is the depiction of the Polish people’s attitude towards their Jewish neighbors.
Except for a single character (a shrewish busybody who discovers Szpliman hiding in a vacant apartment), “The Pianist” presents a Polish population which seemed to go out of their way to aid the Jews and even claimed to be ennobled by the Jewish bravery in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Of course, anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Polish history will have problems with this blowtorching of history (the Jewish Holocaust survivors who returned to Poland were greeted in 1946 with a gruesome state-sanctioned pogrom); while there were Poles who did aid Jews during the war, they were clearly a tiny minority. No one could ever confuse wartime Poland for wartime Denmark.
On a technical standpoint, “The Pianist” makes intelligent use of CGI technology to recreate the bombed-out remains of Warsaw. Pawel Edelman’s cinematography and production designer Allan Starski’s eye for detail brilliantly captures the violent moods of this turbulent time. The acting is a mixed bag: Adrien Brody, as Szpilman, keeps the same gaunt and soulful countenance throughout the film and this gets monotonous, especially when he is alone on screen for long stretches of time and he is failing to respond to any of the various plot twists and developments. Frank Finlay as Szpilman’s father and Ed Stoppard as his hot-headed brother seem to be vying for overacting honors, though Thomas Kretschmann’s performance as the German officer who saves Szpilman brings quiet dignity to an underdeveloped role and Maureen Lipman as Szpilman’s tragic mother struggling to maintain her pride is a small and subtle gem of a performance.
For the record, Roman Polanski was a child in wartime Poland and escaped from the bombing of Warsaw and imprisonment in the Krakow Ghetto. It is impossible not to doubt the sincerity he brought to “The Pianist.” One wishes, though, that “The Pianist” could have been made earlier in his career, when Holocaust films were less prevalent and when it could have made a genuine artistic impact. Instead, it seems like just another Holocaust movie…and the next one, Costa-Gavras’ “Amen,” is due out in a month’s time.