Roman Polanski's The Pianist is one of the great Holocaust movies, and that's saying something. It's also Polanski's best since 1974's Chinatown. That, however, is not saying something; he's lived in creative and literal exile in France since famously fleeing a statutory rape charge in the mid-1970s. But this film arrives with a self-assurance that almost suggests he never went away, with an opening scene that plays like a metaphor for the film itself.
Adrien Brody plays Wladyslaw Szpilman, a real-life classical pianist for Polish radio in the 1930s; the movie is partly based on his memoirs from the late 1940s. We first see him at a piano, coolly tinkling a Chopin piece, confident and serene, a dandy, frankly, with a slender face and long fingers and the posture of an upper-middle-class bourgeois. Engineers watch from recording booths. Then a bomb thuds in the distance, and Szpilman keeps playing.
Another shell lands, closer this time. He winces but keeps playing. The third shell blows out the windows and brings the walls down. Szpilman looks more inconvenienced than frightened. It's 1939, and the Nazis have rolled into Poland. People have a tendency to make do with what is in front of them, to adapt and accommodate themselves. One of the horrors that The Pianist gets across with subtlety is how this instinct worked against the Jews of Poland.
Szpilman's family frantically make plans to flee the country, then they tune in a BBC broadcast announcing that England has declared war on Germany, and that France is expected to join the resistance. They breathe easy and hold a celebratory dinner: this too shall pass, they think. It's one of Polanski's masterstrokes. While The Pianist often looks familiar to moviegoers, horrifyingly familiar, it's a film about the Holocaust as viewed from weird the angles of reality.
We never see more than Szpilman sees. But we know history. Polanski has always worked with a streak of black humor, from his first major work, Knife in the Water, to his classics, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. If there's cynicism in The Pianist, it's largely pulled from our own knowledge. Polanski isn't drawing on a huge canvas, like Steven Spielberg with Schindler's List, or the myriad fine Holocaust documentaries, which tell the story in broad strokes and multiple viewpoints. Instead, he made an epic that doesn't feel epic, but hums along with a matter-of-fact poignancy. It's a more personal film, as was expected of the director.
At age 7, Polanski himself escaped the Krakow ghetto; his family was sent to Auschwitz. He piles up a wealth of detail (the size of star of David armbands Jews are required to wear, strangers watching atrocities from the back of a crowd) without strain. The film's violence is also not exaggerated or muted, but brutal and random. It all carries the brisk, confident knowledge of a filmmaker who knows his subject intimately.
We watch everything from the invasion of Poland to the Allied liberation through Szpilman's eyes, and often from the only (narrow) view he has to see anything. A less engaged film might have leaped from the invasion to brutality to scenes of people being loaded into boxcars and finally the concentration camps. Instead we watch a slow two-year dehumanizing process, administered by dumb bullies with big guns. First, Jews aren't allowed to use the sidewalk. Then they can only keep a small amount of money in their homes. Then they're herded into ghettos. And yet life has to go on. Children are splayed dead in the street and still people believe - they have to believe, we come to understand - if they just get a work permit, if they cook dinner, it will all work out. This is the worst it can get, right?
Being led into train cars, Szpilman turns to his sister. “Elena? “ he asks. “What?” she says. “It's an awful time to say this,” he says. “What?” she asks again.
“I wish I'd known you better.”
And that is only the first half of the picture. Szpilman doesn't say a lot. He has the daze of a man being pushed too fast through events. He's not a hero; he's too passive for that. Brody, so impressive in a number of under-seen films like Summer of Sam and King of the Hill, seems, in a perverse way, to be almost playing a Wrong Man character in a Hitchcock film, not anxious to get involved, but thrown about anyway. He doesn't choose to fight or to run. He's only spared his family's fate through dumb luck.
A Nazi conspirator pulls him from certain death. Numb from shock, he stumbles away and, in one amazing shot, Szpilman weeps in an abandoned ghetto littered with bodies and suitcases and furniture.
The second half is a suspense film with no suspense - how could there be? Szpilman escapes forced labor and is smuggled through a series of safe houses around Warsaw. Again we're watching from his limited perspective. From a small window, when it's safe enough to open the curtains, he watches a ghetto uprising and its inevitable put-down. He watches and watches, the war with a window frame around it, until the war blasts into his room and he becomes increasingly mute, shabby, threadbare, and hunched over, plucking at a can of pickles with a fireplace poker. His survival, we realize, is arbitrary, a simple twist of fate. And his only job has been survival itself. I think this is what The Pianist ultimately says: That Szpilman's story is not uplifting or inspiring, but a matter of holding on long enough to begin his old life again and give the world the only thing he, and Polanski, owe this world - the clarity of great art.