dir: Roman Polanski
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"Breathtaking!" "Stunning!" "A Masterpiece!" "Grunties!"
These words are used to describe everything from the most recent Jerry Bruckheimer film to the latest hemorrhoid creams on the market. Superlatives are such an integral part of the marketing hyperbole industry that the words have lost all meaning. Certainly their use, by anyone, especially film critics should be taken not with a grain of salt, but with a quantity of salt not exceeding that available in your average ocean.
That being said, when people you respect (for whatever reason, whether it be their professional credibility or the way they keep handing you lollies until you get into the car with them) start using words like that about a film, you prick up your ears. In this context, some of those words have been applied to The Pianist, and perhaps not without merit. The film has even been honoured at this year's Academy circlejerk, which, whilst not usually an indicator of anything more important than the fact that Hollywood is more insular and inbred than a hillbilly family from the Appalachian mountains (you know, Deliverance country), has for once potentially gotten it right.
For obvious reasons, Roman Polanski had to regretfully decline to appear to receive his Oscar, considering the fact that if he sets foot in the States ever again, he may just end up in jail having someone do to him on a daily basis what he himself did to that thirteen year old girl all those years ago. You may think, well, he's in his sixties, but I've heard some of the lifers doing hard time like their new buddies to have lots of experience. To be broken in, so to speak.
And experience he certainly has. Whatever you may think about Polanski personally, this is definitely his best film in ages. I've yet to meet the person who could tolerate his last film, The Ninth Gate, for more than a minute of its interminable length. Death and the Maiden had its problems, and Bitter Moon before it was so bad it was funny. In a Plan Nine from Outer Space kind of way. With Hugh Grant, no less.
Whether he deserved it or not (the Oscar), its hard to say. In the field it was in it probably was the better film, but usually to me it's like comparing apples and heroin when trying to judge these films. Still, the more cynical among us believe that any film with Holocaust themes is pretty much Oscar-bait right from the start.
Such a stance would be unfair in this instance. It is a genuinely remarkable film. Adrien Brody puts in a masterful performance as the main character, Wladyslaw Szpilman, a man who survived the Warsaw ghetto and the Nazi occupation of Poland, narrowly escaping death and worse on multiple occasions, mostly by pure luck. Brody is truly excellent in the role. Yes, it is easy for the more simple-minded to overload on superlatives lacking any other way to describe a film's virtues, but it is appropriate in this instance. The latter half of the film requires Brody to express a number of emotions, states and concepts with body language alone due to the limited dialogue, and he does so in a competent fashion. This isn't the first time I've been impressed by Adrien Brody, seeing as I thought he was a stand out in Spike Lee's underrated 'period' piece Summer of Sam, where he played a New Jersey boy who decided he was a British punk. His looks are unconventional, his face has odd qualities, not least of which are a malleability that brings Buster Keaton to mind (for reasons that have nothing to do with comedy). But there is no doubt as to his talent, at least in this role.
At film's beginning Szpilman has his regular gig playing Chopin piano pieces on the local radio, seeing as, amazingly enough, he is the pianist referred to in the title. As an aside, I very much enjoyed the copious amounts of Chopin on the soundtrack, as I spent many hours in my youth painfully practising his pieces on the piano, in between slanging crack, gun-running and fighting on the mean ghetto streets of Moonee Ponds and Camberwell. That and the Scout meetings; it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times…
Chopin's Nocturnes, in particular, have a special place in my heart, and the soundtrack has two of them that I can remember. Brody does a very credible job of appearing like a genuine pianist, which doesn't seem that important with the whole suspension of disbelief concept, but plays a major part in my eyes. In comparison, I am reminded of another film I saw recently, an alleged 'cult' film favourite called Fingers starring Harvey "Can I Get My Dick Out?" Keitel. In it he plays a strange, violent sociopath who is also an expert pianist. In the role it's obvious that Harvey had probably only ever used a piano to smash someone's head against. They make music as well? Wonders will never cease. By the way the film Fingers was fucking dire, in case you were wondering.
I don't for a second believe that Brody's really the one playing the piano in most of those scenes, but he is convincing at least in terms of body language. Of course, the majority of the film occurs away from the piano, whilst the music itself, or the concept of art having a civilising, redemptive power remains central to the film.
Szpilman and his family live comfortably in Warsaw until the coming of the Nazis. Their lives go progressively downhill as the regimen of daily brutality and random acts of murder and dehumanisation takes its toll on the family. As Polanski himself was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, you can see the importance of the subject matter to all concerned, as details are reproduced to an amazing degree, from a set design and a special effects point of view. The attention to detail is amazing. The details themselves are incredibly depressing.
The Nazis are portrayed, with a single exception, as being uniformly sadistic and casual in their brutality. I don't think anyone except for historical revisionists and Holocaust-deniers like David Irving and other loony neo-Nazis would cry about it being an unfair generalisation. It is shown to be what it was: a pretty fucking dire time for the human race. The Nazis serve their purpose, but more so than their presence the looming feeling of dread that dominates the film, the impression that circumstances being what they are our protagonist and everyone around him could die blamelessly at any moment, is powerfully conveyed.
I have heard film criticism which speaks of Szpilman as being a passive observer in proceedings, as being the acted upon as opposed to a participant in what occurs. That may or may not be valid, but I think it misses the point somewhat. The events represented are so huge in scope (the Final Solution itself, the Ghetto Uprising, WWII in general) that seeing it from the point of view of one man desperately trying to survive is the truest way to tell this story. No one wants to remake Schindler's List, and this film's focus is completely different in scope and realisation, resulting in a film no less powerful but certainly more personal.
The other criticism I've heard regarding the film's central theme of the importance of Art and how its survival is of the utmost importance is somewhat lost on me as well. If you take the view that the film's pretentious point is that it is wonderful that Szpilman survived BECAUSE he was a great pianist, then I think the point is missed. I don't feel that Szpilman was 'supposed' to survive or that his survival was any 'better' than anyone else's simply because he was a pianist. For me the film's point is the survival of humanity, a person's humanity, a nation's humanity. Art is an extension of our humanity, not some coldly distant pretentious thing that exists outside of us. That Szpilman survived, when he lost all of his family, and when millions of others lost their lives, was great news for him. And that he got to keep playing beautiful music that he loved up until the 80s is a testament to the resourcefulness of humanity and our desire to survive in the face of insurmountable odds and unfathomable cruelty. And surely that is something worth celebrating.
Make no mistake, the film is heavy going. There are moments of extreme disgust and terrible violence, terrible because it is abrupt and out of nowhere. But that doesn't detract from the experience, if anything it adds gravity to an already serious endeavour. There is one great laugh in the film, and it occurs at a point where the audience in some cases will be so exhausted by everything that's happened that the laughter is more from relief than anything else. The beautiful ending, utterly simple in nature but extremely effective, is the perfect way to end the film. There are also some amazing effects, combinations of digital effects and matte paintings, which show the destruction of Warsaw. Consistently the film hits the mark, though it certainly exacts a hefty toll upon the viewer.
For once the Academy got it right. Someone's obviously been spiking their wheatgrass juice, and I hope they keep it up.
8 senseless racially based executions out of 10
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?