In 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman was one of Poland’s most
celebrated concert pianists. Even if you’ve never heard the
name, you know of Szpilman’s footnote in history: He was playing
a Chopin nocturne when the Luftwaffe bombed Poland’s
state radio station. His interrupted performance was the last
Polish state radio broadcast for six years.
The change in fortunes of Wladyslaw, his father, mother,
brother Henryk, and sisters Halina and Regina,
is presented as a history of the Warsaw ghetto experienced
through the Szpilman family. Complete with dates that correspond
to Nazi edicts governing the lives of Poland’s Jews, The
Pianist at first comes across as the sort of earnest historical
drama one might catch on PBS or A&E, albeit one with very
high production values.
On the day of the radio station bombing, Wladyslaw arrives
home to find his family packing. Urged to gather his things,
he tells his mother, “I’m not leaving. If I’m to die, I prefer
to die here.” With our advance knowledge of the fate of Warsaw’s
Jews, we’re rooting for the Szpilmans to hit the road. But
when a BBC broadcast tells that England has declared war on
Germany and that France is expected to, they set down their
suitcases. Sooner than they could have expected, they hoist
those suitcases again, this time to move from their comfortable
family apartment to two rooms in the newly declared Jewish
zone of Warsaw. From there, they move yet again, to a workhouse
further within the walled ghetto, and finally, to the depot,
to board the train to the concentration camps.
Up to this point, and this is easily an hour into the movie,
I sat wondering, “What makes this particularly about The Pianist?
It seems to be a general history.” Then, as the Szpilmans
move through the crush of Jews boarding the train, a hand
reaches out and snatches Wladyslaw from the crowd. A Nazi
collaborator, who’d previously asked Wladyslaw and Henryk
to join the ghetto cops, saves his life. Wladyslaw joins a
workgroup and is briefly involved with resistors who smuggle
weapons into the ghetto, before he escapes into greater Warsaw.
As he moves outside, the world changes from the muddy, slate
grey of the ghetto to a palette of normal colors. There’s
even clean white snow.
Musician friends in the Resistance hide him in a series of
flats, smuggling in food and occasionally, medical attention.
His days are spent just barely breathing, staying as quiet
as possible so that no one will detect his presence. In one
flat, he must suffer being on the other side of the wall from
a piano, played rather badly, too. And—oh the irony!—his next
flat actually contains a piano. Eventually, the Warsaw Uprising
leads the Nazis to raze the neighborhood where he was hiding.
Not much I’ve seen has matched the emotional power of the
scene where an emaciated Szpilman desperately scrabbles over
a wall to escape flamethrowers, only to find a moonscape of
bombed-out, abandoned buildings lining the street as far as
the horizon. The pianist takes refuge in the attic of a building
that becomes a Nazi staff HQ, and is discovered by a Nazi
officer, Captain Hosenfeld.
“What do you do?” Hosenfeld asks.
“I am… I was a pianist.”
Since the building houses a piano, the officer invites him
to play, and sits unmoving, but obviously moved, as Szpilman
plays Chopin Ballad No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23 (recorded by
Janusz Olejniczak). Hosenfeld tells him to return to
his hidey-hole, and brings him food for the remaining few
weeks of the war.
Once again, as with The Grey Zone, we have a great
film about the European Jewish experience in WWII. The common
thread that makes these movies fine is their lack of sentimentality
and monolithic nobility. Szpilman’s world contained good and
bad people of every kind—Jewish, German, or Polish gentiles.
Viewers of movies about these perilous times need no emotional
guidance. The events speak loudly. Indeed, in The Pianist
we get matter-of-fact scenes of cruelty so awesomely capricious
that I could only think that the Germans must have been mad,
must have all consumed lead in their drinking water. We need
no prompting to determine that this one is noble, that one
inhuman. We require no guidance to figure out what’s shocking
and what’s uplifting. Are you listening, Mr. Spielberg?
Szpilman, in hiding, had almost Forrest Gump-like positioning
to witness WWII history. Sensibly, Polanski resists
the temptation to do more than lay these events before us.
That’s not to say that he rested on his laurels. The unembellished
life of Szpilman is on screen, but the hand of Roman Polanski
is evident in the visuals and the performances. The performances
of the supporting characters are uniformly fine, especially
that of Dorota (Fox), a young gentile who clearly held
Wladyslaw’s affections, pre-war. It’s probably a quibble to
note that some actors indulged that British thespian tendency
of fondness for affecting Eastern European accents and some
did not, resulting in uneven notes in conversations, but it
was occasionally jarring. Just how does Roman Polanski do
it, anyway? How does he pull these performances out of actors?
Think of the surprise of Harrison Ford in Frantic,
or the never-again-matched excellence of Jack Nicholson
in Chinatown and of Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s
Baby. Here, Adrien Brody (King Of The Hill,
Summer Of Sam, The Thin Red Line), who as Szpilman, is
in nearly every scene, gives one of those performances that
will always be the one you think of when you think of him.
Thomas Kretschmann (Queen Margot, U-571, Blade II),
as the Nazi officer who aids Szpilman in the last days of
the war, really danced on the knife’s edge to create a man
of both duty and humanity without making him all icky and
maudlin. The soundtrack may be too much Chopin for some tastes,
but you do get to hear wonderful pieces of music in their
entirety. Highly recommended.