Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:18 pm 
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A terrible and beautiful experience

Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, has less in common with Spielberg's "Schindler's List" than with Kozinski's "The Painted Bird": it's about a Jew who survived in the midst of the Holocaust and who, somewhat like Polanski himself, slipped by the Nazis throughout the war. Instead of being a child like Kozinski's hero (or Polanski during the war) Wladyslaw Szpilman (Vladek) is an artist, but he has very much the same detachment as a wanton child. Stripped of his whole family when he's snatched apart as they're herded off to the death camps, he becomes a solitary creature living on in Warsaw by his wits and with help from others. He's stripped down again and again, left with little more than a toothbrush and a piece of bread, but he keeps some other baggage no one can take away: he always remains also a musician with a mission in life, to play piano on Polish radio. This we have seen Szpilman doing as the war breaks out and we see him doing again after it's over. Polanski's task, achieved with impressive completeness mixed with superb restraint, is to show us all that happens in between.

This is a singular tale about a man reduced to the commonest denominator of bare existence, but it's also a vision of the survival of the human spirit. That survival is vividly expressed when we see Szpilman play air piano hidden in a locked apartment overlooking the Warsaw ghetto, and when we hear him, starving, bearded and gaunt, playing a Chopin Nocturne for a German officer who finds him hiding and then chooses to protect him. All through this surreal adventure, which is full of horrors and rather coldly inflicts enormous emotional pain upon any sensitive person who watches it, Szpilman, played with equal absorption and panache by Adrien Brody, seems to slide along like an elegant wraith, noble but also self effacing. (This is the great role that Brody was destined for and has been robbed of up to now.)

"After great pain a formal feeling comes," as Emily Dickenson puts it, and "The Pianist" has a coolness and restraint other holocaust movies have lacked. This doesn't mean we're spared horror, fear, and terrible sorrow. It simply means we watch with a kind of hunger and awe. And we respect what we see because it is without theatricality or schmaltz.

Brody carries the film, and it's the nature of the story that all other characters are in a sense cameos. Though some secondary characters are strong ones, others are too little distinguished to keep them separate. Another flaw, inevitable perhaps, is that this is a movie where all the Poles speak English. It helps a bit that the Germans all speak German, and it helps a lot that the Warsaw Forties war world is so faithfully recreated—sometimes unaccountably beautiful in its cold light and faded colors. It's obvious that "The Pianist" works better than "Schindler's List" to recreate the Holocaust experience, simply because it focuses on one man. And it helps that, though the experience was different, Polanski was there, in Krakow anyway, surviving and hiding through the war, escaped from the ghetto, as Szpilman did.

Now that he has produced something really splendid, people feel obliged to point out that Polanski is a sex offender, exiled from the US because he won't face charges for it. Well, what can one say? He appears before us in "The Pianist" not as a criminal but as an artist with authentic knowledge of profound suffering. The experience this movie provides is a terrible and beautiful one, and there's not a wrong note in it.

January 8, 2003

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