Wednesday, May 13, 2015
(November 2002, U.S.)
As a film title, Roman Polanski's THE PIANIST is almost anything but. What I mean is that as a World War II story of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the tale of one man's raw survival against unthinkable evil, it seems we very rarely get a real idea of just who Adrian Brody's character of Polish-Jewish Władysław Szpilman really is as a pianist. When we're first introduced to the man, it's the year 1939 in Warsaw and Szpilman is playing piano live on the radio when the station is bombed during the Nazi invasion which causes the outbreak of their involvement in the war. Foolishly counting on a very a quick victory, Szpilman celebrates with his posh family at home when they learn that Great Britain and France have declared war on Germany. However, German troops soon enter Warsaw and the Nazi authorities have implemented measures to identify, isolate and financially ruin and reduce the Jewish population in Warsaw, including the order for them to provide their own identifying armbands bearing the Star of David. As a viewer, there is a level of frustration in this because there is that moment when we know this family could have gotten out of Warsaw and saved their own lives. Bad judgement and false hopes will now cost them their souls!
Within a year, the Szpilman family and all other Jewish families in Poland have been removed from their homes and relocated to the overcrowded conditions of Jewish sectors, where they're meant to starve, lose their entire social structure and be left at the mercy of the Nazi guards. By the time the trains are rolling and carrying the Jewish population to what will ultimately by the death camps, Władysław Szpilman is separated from those he loves and forced to survive by his animal instincts and all the luck that human decency (wherever it may lie) can provide for him. What follows is years of survival and narrow escapes from cruelty and death. Szpilman is meant to be a hero, but not by any anti-war fighting (he does not participate in what was eventually to be called the Polish "Uprising") or even the passion of music that his been the soul of his life, thus far. Szpilman is a hero simply because he has the good fortune and determination to survive! Szpilman the pianist is not a crucial factor in his survival, his life or the story. There is one moment, however, when the pianist's true soul comes through and that's when Szpilman is alone in a deserted apartment that just happens to have a piano in it. Forced into silence, he can only sit at it, close his eyes and pretend to hit those black and white keys while we listen to the sweet sounds of music that are in his head. This is a powerful moment of passion and unfortunately, the moment doesn't last as long on film as I think it should have. Polanski (or his editor) chooses to cut this moment short and that's a rather tragic decision in film editing. As an audience, we're given a beautiful sequence of joy and then it's yanked away from us too soon. If there's an intentional cinematic point to this, I haven't figured it out yet.
Even as a war film, which is never pretty, the film's ultimate message is of hope and survival for the future. Still, watching any graphic film of the Holocaust leaves the viewer no choice but to watch the screen with a rather blank, grim look on their faces (like me!). We know our history and we know of the millions of Jews that were murdered under Hitler's Nazi regime. What hope do we think we'll achieve from that? Survival, I suppose...the thought to live another day and perhaps claim one's right to their own future is the best we can expect. At the war's end, Szpilman survives (it's almost stupidly amusing to see that he's almost killed by Polish soldiers because he's wearing a German soldier's coat simply to keep warm!), is liberated and finally comes full circle with his music as he's seen playing a piece by Chopin on the radio again before a captive audience. Yet look closely at Brody's face and try to conclude exactly what he's feeling...
He has survived the horror of war and life for him appears to almost simply resume as it was before war claimed it. He's alive and he's playing music again, but at what cost? He's alone now, having lost his entire family and that's something that will haunt him forever. My only conclusion is that whether or not passion and joy is evident in one's manner or character, it's all we have sometimes in life even when all else seems hopeless...even the hopelessness of survival in a world you've witnessed gone wrong.
While I certain won't try to compare this film with Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993), which ultimately hits our nerves and our guts on a higher level, Roman Polanski tells a very personal tale, and this is coming from a man who escaped Nazi Germany when he was a boy. It's a complex film of humanity, inhumanity, animal survival instincts, the harsh pain of loss and one's final redemption. This is a lot of emotion for an actor like Adian Brody to have to pull off on film and he does it splendidly, certainly earning his Oscar nomination for Best Actor. And yes, CHICAGO may have won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2002, but in my humble opinion, it should have been THE PIANIST!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Wailing Woman: "Why did I do it? Why did I do it? Why did I do it?"
Halina Szpilman: "She's getting on my nerves. What did she do, for God's sake?"
Father Szpilman: "She smothered her baby."