4 out of 5
Directed by: Roman Polanksi
I’m not big on historical movies. I’m not big on sad movies. A movie centered around events in Warsaw, for a Jew, during World War II, would seem to check both of those boxes, and thus not be high on my must-watch list.
However: give me a good filmmaker, and they can render films I’d have no desire to watch otherwise into something captivating. And as much as I struggle with reconciling how I feel about various filmmakers’ personal histories and the films they make, I cannot deny that all of the Roman Polanski movies I have seen have, at the very least, been interesting, with several of them – The Pianist now included – being quite brilliantly sweeping.
The Pianist adapts Polish jew Władysław Szpilman’s autobiography of his Holocaust experience during the Nazi invasion of Poland. Almost everything about Polanski’s handling of the film is observation: background events are delivered to us second hand through discussions of overheard news; while Szpilman’s (Adrien Brody) reaction to the slow then fast rolling out of rules restricting Jews behaviors and lives are voiced aloud to his family – proud disbelief, mostly, the film opening on his continuing to play piano during a broadcast radio program while his building is bombed – once the damning reality of tenement living and the very real threat of being shot dead in the street at random drop upon them, he is silenced, chewing on his lip, offering hollow support that things will be okay as his family is separated and he gets the opportunity to continue to hide out on the streets around town.
This approach is parallel to Władysław’s experience, which is one of – if you’ll pardon this in reference to such an overall tragic and horrific event – _luck_. We see, again and again, how the line between life and death did not matter due to acts of heroism or cowardice: you were discovered in your hiding spot or you weren’t; a drunken soldier took issue with you that day and shot you dead or did not. This ‘indifference’ towards life is all around us during the film: dead bodies or immobile, starving people litter the strips as the prisoners are shoved to and fro to labor camps; a soldier runs out of bullets during a shooting while the waiting recipient remains prostrate on the ground… for the soldier to patiently take his time to reload and shoot anyway. This carries on throughout every moment, making the two and half hours we spend with Szpilman – occasionally accompanied by piano pieces, but otherwise quite still and silent – rife with the tenseness of living in such constant fright.
This remove does prevent a certain emotional attachment to Szpilman as a lead, allowing for a certain degree of separation; the movie is _absolutely_ immersive, but it’s more concerned with the experience than dictating the history to us, which prevents it from making overt movie-like grabs for our heartstrings. I prefer this approach over all, but at the same time, it’s odd watching events that register, on one level, as so severe, without feeling caught up emotionally as a more manipulative movie might aim to do.
A stunning piece of filmmaking, and an amazing story.