There have been other films dealing with the Jewish ghettos during the Nazi occupation of Poland--some very good--but The Pianist, the latest feature from Roman Polanski, may be the best. Of course, it starts out with a huge advantage: The 69-year-old Polanski is probably the only working filmmaker to have personally experienced the Nazi persecution of Jews; he is surely the only one to have actually lived in, and escaped from, the Krakow Ghetto.
Almost a decade ago, shortly after the release of Schindler's List, I had the opportunity to ask Polanski how he felt about Steven Spielberg's handling of his subject matter and if he was ever tempted to bring his own experiences to the screen. "Yes, I liked Schindler's List very much...And I am tempted. In fact, I think I should do a film that deals with my childhood and with the war and with Poland. But I always had a problem with it, with the language. It's hard for me to make a film about those things in English. And what do I have to do; do I have to make a Polish film now? Its career would be extremely limited."
Of course, now he has made such a film in English. And perhaps his qualms have diminished because he has distanced himself from his own autobiographical material by filming someone else's autobiography--that of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a concert pianist who lived through the Nazi occupation, escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and managed to stay alive through the end of the war. (Szpilman died in 2000, shortly before the beginning of the film's shooting, at the age of 88.)
We first meet Szpilman (Adrien Brody) as he plays a Chopin nocturne at the Polish state radio station on September 23, 1939. His performance is interrupted by German bombs, but he manages to maintain a devil-may-care attitude--one that won't last long. A few days later, the Germans move in, and Polanski shows us, with almost clinical detachment, the process that pushes Szpilman and his family slowly and inexorably toward the Treblinka death camp...all in little steps, the earliest of which seem less than horrible except to those who see where they can lead. (Think of that next time you hear John Ashcroft minimizing the threat of the rounding up of just a few citizens in utter secrecy.)
First, it's merely rules about certain locations being off-limits to Jews--not necessarily something immediately disruptive to their lives--and limits to how much cash they can have on hand. Then--how else to enforce such rules?--they are forced to wear armbands that identify them as Jewish.
And then the real disruption takes place. Their houses are confiscated. They are moved into shabby apartments and, a year after the Germans arrive, are completely segregated in the ghetto. Once the city's Jews are all inside, a wall is put up. It isn't mere segregation; it's imprisonment. The starvation and disease in the ghetto is bad enough, but, of course, it's only a matter of time before the Nazis decide that Jews aren't dying off sufficiently quickly and that it will be necessary to transport them for extermination.
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Szpilman and his family are on their way, but, by a stroke of luck, he manages to escape and get on a work crew, despite his frail physique. Eventually he even manages to escape the ghetto and to survive in hiding, through the kindness of old Gentile acquaintances and Polish freedom fighters. He watches the amazing Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from across the street.
Polanski is famously a stylized, even surreal filmmaker, which is why most of his best films have been about madness (Repulsion, The Tenant), the supernatural (The Fearless Vampire Killers) or some unclear borderline between the two (Rosemary's Baby). Chinatown is the exception, but even it moves toward madness in its final scenes. Since he had to decamp from the United States because of his scandalous legal troubles, he has done both good and bad work of a more conventional nature--Tess, Pirates, Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden--where his affinity for the grotesque and fantastic has been largely restrained.
In The Pianist, he is even more restrained. It is easy but possibly accurate dime-book psychology to suggest that his horrific experiences as a child led directly to his style. And it makes sense that now, when dealing most directly with those experiences, he chooses not to filter reality through a distorting, subjective lens. To turn the Holocaust into a "horror film" would be an insult, as well as aesthetically unwise. Its bare nature is so horrible that a relatively realistic presentation does the job best.
Quite deliberately, we get only a sketchy sense of Szpilman as an individual. He starts out as shallow, a lightweight; by the time circumstances force depth upon him, he has been reduced by necessity to a simple survival machine. There is nothing heroic about either his actions or his character. The only thing that distinguishes him from the ghosts of his family and neighbors is that he survives. And that is less a function of some special inner strength or tenaciousness than of sheer circumstance.