Judge Bryan Byun reviews Roman Polanski's take on the Holocaust.
Our review of The Pianist (HD DVD), published January 24th, 2008, is also available.
Music was his passion. Survival was his masterpiece.
2002's The Pianist, Polish director Roman Polanski's intimate, intensely personal story set during the Holocaust, arrived in the wake of such powerful cinematic documents as Shoah, Schindler's List, and 2001's harrowing The Grey Zone. Given the scope and impact of those works, could even a master filmmaker like Polanski find something new to say about this gruesome chapter of human history?
Facts of the Case
This true story of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, adapted from his memoir, follows its protagonist (played by Adrien Brody, who won the Best Actor Oscar for this role) from the German invasion of Poland in 1939 to the liberation of Warsaw by the Russian Army in 1945. While many of the facts of this period are well known—Jews being forced to wear armbands, eventually being driven out of their homes and into a walled-off ghetto, and finally rounded up and exterminated—Polanski gives us a sense of the day to day existence of occupied Warsaw. Keeping the focus on the everyday life of the Warsaw ghetto, Polanski conveys in chilling detail what it must have been like to live in that city during this time; the mounting terror, the too-slow realization of what was happening, the claustrophobia and loneliness of living in hiding.
With all that has been written, said, and filmed about the Holocaust over the decades, it is no small achievement for Polanski to offer a fresh perspective on this event, with a film that, unlike the aforementioned examples, focuses on just one character, and never leaves the Warsaw ghetto. Other filmmakers have depicted the horror of the concentration camps; Polanski shows us the plight of the Jews who were left behind.
Polanski, by focusing on the everyday lives of the Polish people, brings the insanity of the Holocaust to a human level, makes us understand that it was regular people who perpetrated—and endured—this genocide. This has the effect of heightening the revulsion and horror at the atrocities we witness. Like the Polish Jews, we find it hard to imagine that people who could be our next-door neighbors could commit such acts. For the first time I understand how someone living in Poland in 1939-1940 might have stayed, instead of escaping when they had the chance. You just don't imagine monstrous things like this happening in your country, in your city, in your neighborhood, to you.
Imagine if the United States government decided to exterminate everyone living in the state of Colorado. It's a ridiculous notion. Who beyond paranoid types would figure something like this actually happening? But here we see the noose tightening gradually around these people, with slowly mounting restrictions, the people still confident that this war will all be over soon—until it's too late.
Unlike other Holocaust films, which affirm the "resilience of the human spirit" and show people persevering through hard times by their determination and imagination, what The Pianist shows us is that life and death during the Holocaust was mostly random—which is partly what makes it so horrific. Szpilman is not special, just lucky. Throughout the film, we see incidents of pointless, random killing. Men are taken in no particular order out of a labor crew and executed. A woman asks a harmless question of a Nazi officer and is casually shot in the head. Szpilman survives only because he was in the right places at the right times and, finally, because he wasn't killed. That's all.
It explains a great deal to know that Polanski, a survivor of the Holocaust himself, was only spared from the death camps because his father pushed him through a barbed-wire fence. There was no reason other than sheer luck that he survived. That's the fundamental statement of this film; it's a harsh statement, but an unsparingly honest one.
The Pianist, as one might expect from a film set in war-torn Europe, does not offer a dazzling visual feast. However, cinematographer Pawel Edelman uses his limited palette of subdued earth tones to full effect, creating a rich and often beautiful urban landscape that is faithfully captured on this anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. The image is flawless, with no artifacts or print defects that I could detect. The audio, presented here in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks, is similarly pristine, and like the visuals of the film are subtle and subdued.
The most notable supplement on the disc is a 35-minute "making of" documentary that is well worth watching for its entertaining interviews with Polanski, Brody, and other members of the team, as well as for its glimpse of the real Wladyslaw Szpilman. Also included are production notes, cast and crew filmographies, the film's theatrical trailer, and a promotional clip for the soundtrack.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
About the only thing I wish this film had had was a bit more of a coda; Szpilman survives, but we get only a glimpse of how his experiences have changed him, or how he deals with the guilt of surviving while his entire family was killed. The character ultimately remains somewhat opaque, his inner thoughts locked behind a placid mask.
While it's a little disappointing that this Oscar-endowed film is lacking a director's commentary track, since there are so many moments in the film that would have benefited from Polanski's insights, it's a minor quibble in what is otherwise a solid package. The Pianist is a powerful drama that offers no comforting Hollywood sentimentality, and even those who think they've seen enough Holocaust movies will find themselves riveted by this very human story.
Though the court still wishes to speak with Mr. Polanski on unrelated charges, he is fully exonerated in this case, as is Mr. Brody, who this court expects to see great things from in the future. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Story of Survival: The Making of The Pianist
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