The Pianist (2002)Rated R for violence and brief strong language.
Starring Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman.
LVJeff's Rating: 7/10
Photo ©Focus Features. All rights reserved.
Surviving the Holocaust
Roman Polanski's ability to make The Pianist an admirable movie was never in doubt. The noted filmmaker made no secret of his passion for the project and about how personal the movie is for him. Although based on Wladyslaw Szpilman's account of his survival in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust, this film also draws from Polanski's own childhood memories of living in the Cracow Ghetto. The Pianist's place as respectable cinema is no surprise, but that it doesn't feel very personal is somewhat of a wonder.
Polanski may have miscalculated the effect of the movie by staying too close to the spirit of Szpilman's book -- which he describes as "almost cool and scientific" in its objectivity. Although Polanski expresses appreciation for Szpilman's unbiased, detailed observations, that same style creates an unwelcome coldness and distance when applied to the film. Szpilman's experience on the screen is harrowing, yes, but rarely do we feel like we are inside the man's head. The film too neatly moves from one event to the next, making sure the audience can see what is happening in all its starkness, but dedicating little time to moments of reflection.
Otherwise, The Pianist is fine work. Praiseworthy period re-creation adds to the believability of early scenes depicting civilized, pre-Ghetto Warsaw. That convincing "sense of place" look is matched by the horror of scenes showing crowded groups of Jews checking in to ride trains to their fates. Later shots of a bombed-out wasteland threaten to leave a frightful lasting image in the viewer's mind. Polanski pulls no punches when dealing with the terror and crimes in the Ghetto. If The Pianist is someone's first exposure to a Holocaust-themed film, it could result in long-term disturbance for that person.
However, this brings up an unfortunate problem for The Pianist -- it's not likely to be the first Holocaust movie for many viewers. Polanski certainly wanted to deliver a film highlighting the atrocities at their most horrific -- but Steven Spielberg already beat him to it with Schindler's List. Spielberg's movie gave the inhumanity of the Holocaust a massive mainstream-level profile. As a result, later works displaying similar inhumanities lose their anticipated impact, especially when not contributing significantly to a larger original context.
Without such context, The Pianist remains primarily an observational survival story, and not much more (and at two-and-a-half hours, it's somewhat of a tiring one). All we learn about Szpilman, as played by Adrien Brody, is that he was a relatively well-known pianist before becoming another victimized Jew in the Ghetto. He loses contact with his family, but his reputation wins him several secret German friends who help him hide. However, these are all just facts -- we get little idea about his feelings. In fact, by the end of the movie, I sensed Szpilman was more worried about the fate of his last secret ally than concerned over what happened to his relatives. Although The Pianist succeeds as a professionally crafted movie, its grip is more forceful than it is involving, and it lacks that extra something needed to be an outstanding film.
©Jeffrey Chen, Nov. 18, 2002