Does the world need another Holocaust film? When the director is Roman Polanski, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.”
Polanski’s long-awaited film “The Pianist” is based on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiography. Szpilman was the Jewish pianist/composer who, through a combination of good fortune, good connections and (most importantly) his own strong will, managed to stay alive within Warsaw during the city’s Nazi occupation.
Comparisons to “Schindler’s List” will undoubtedly fly from the mouths of naysayers, with the claim that Spielberg’s been there, done that. There’s a significant difference between the two films, however. Remember the ending of “Schindler’s List” where Oskar Schindler (as played by Liam Neeson) tells his Jewish factory workers to thank themselves instead of him? It’s an open acknowledgement that Schindler, not his suffering workers, has been the focal point of the film.
“The Pianist” shifts the perspective squarely to the viewpoint of a survivor, namely Szpilman (played by Adrian Brody, with impressive reserve). Granted, the film takes a little bit to get moving. Early scenes involve Szpilman’s family as they move from their comfortable abode into the Warsaw ghetto. There’s a certain amount of character development, particularly with Szpilman’s rebellious brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard). That all flies out the window in the snap of a finger, as Szpilman gets separated from his family and is left to his own devices to stay alive.
There’s no room for sentimentality in “The Pianist.” A Polish WWII survivor himself, Polanski is determined to credit those wronged as the clear heroes of the war, but without the sappy orchestral flourishes or bold dialogue. He initially films with historic detachment, doing his best to re-enact scenes and scenarios from the early days of Nazi occupation and the formation of the Warsaw ghetto. Come the inevitable deportation of Jews to camps like Treblinka, his perspective changes. Camera filters become grayer, his focus narrows to one man and the scenes become more isolated. By the late scenes, Polanski’s centering his subject in an open wasteland, revealing Szpilman’s alienation from the world he once knew. It’s a stark visual statement, a man in a world that has all but abandoned him.
Granted, a few Gentile friends and acquaintances come to the assistance of Szpilman (because of his musical reputation), but they offer limited security and some use him for their own profit. Even when a Schindler-like German officer (Thomas Kretschmann) offers to help hide him out (in clear appreciation of Szpilman’s piano talents), Polanski sees no need to pander to the officer’s benevolence. Throughout the later scenes, Brody’s wiry frame communicates weakness, but his silent stare and bright eyes reveal a man determined by whatever means to stay alive, with or without a few crumbs tossed by some benefactors.
Brody’s acting effort, combined with the stark visuals of the film’s last hour, makes “The Pianist” a necessary film. It is a tale full of silent fury, a profound portrait of survival within the most dire of conditions.