Haunting Notes

'The Pianist' casts a spell with its story of persecution, survival and the jolting compromises of life during wartime.

January 10, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Who is The Pianist?

Roman Polanski's new movie may be the greatest historical film centered on an enigmatic character since Lawrence of Arabia - and Polanski's protagonist, Wladyslaw Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody), is no epic champion of an underdog people but rather, just barely, a survivor of the Holocaust.

He's part of a close, healthily combative Warsaw Jewish family with a brother and two sisters and a father who plays the violin. But he's also set apart from them, perhaps by artistic temperament. In one of many heart-piercing yet unsentimental moments, as they walk to the cattle cars, he tells his younger sister that he's sorry he never knew her better - and she thanks him. Then one of the Germans' loathsome hired Jewish cops pulls Szpilman out of the mob and saves him from the camps. He never sees his family again. And he owes his life to a thug.

The screen appears to be set for a tale of grace under pressure at the beginning, when the elegant musical star of Polish radio, with the Gershwinesque profile and the dreamy gaze, plays Chopin and refuses to stop until German shells crash through his studio. But The Pianist, based on Szpilman's astoundingly cogent memoir of the same name, compels the viewer to transcend any yearning for comforting heroic concepts.

Polanski's film is both harrowingly specific about the destruction of Warsaw's Jewry and cuttingly universal about the jolting compromises of life during wartime. What is courage and what is foolishness under Nazi guns? The father (Frank Finlay) says he'll never wear the Star of David on his sleeve; soon he's walking with it on his overcoat. He tries to remain upbeat: When the Germans relocate all Jews to a two-part ghetto (later it becomes one), he looks at the close quarters and declares them better than he expected. But neither the personal optimism of Szpilman's father nor the historical optimism of a political friend can see them through catastrophe.

The effects of war

The Pianist tests an audience's movie-bred expectations, then, stirringly, confounds them. Will Szpilman have a fling with that pretty blond Gentile who threw herself at him while the bombs fell? Will he pick up a gun after he and his family watch the brutal execution of another family's men from a house across the street? Common notions of humanity as well as a desire for excitement may make a viewer root for Szpilman to become a resistance ringleader, or at least for Polanski to open up the picture to salute the fallen fighters. But the brilliance of The Pianist lies in its depiction of cataclysmic events through the eyes of a single sensitive individual. Before long, you fall under a dark hypnotic spell that doesn't break until Szpilman's image fades from the screen. At Cannes, where the movie won the Golden Palm, it received a 20-minute ovation. When I saw it with a heterogeneous, paying audience, no one left until the final credit had rolled and the last piece of music had ended.

Szpilman's combination of mental toughness and vulnerability makes it possible for Polanski to achieve a revealing, emotionally leveling intimacy. Szpilman is magnetic, because no matter how hard it is for anyone to know him, he appears to know himself.

As part of the dwindling Jewish workforce in the Warsaw Ghetto, he helps smuggle guns while realizing he can't hold out for the uprising. With the help of a friend, a rebellion leader, Szpilman escapes - only to become a sort of urban castaway, isolated in one "safe" apartment after another, dependent on not-always-reliable members of the Polish underground, and finally left utterly alone in a ruined city.

What Polanski shows you, with the intensifying force of an escalating genocide, is just what total war can do: deflate every natural expectation of respect, trust and rationality; rupture any human bonds; and remove any hope of sustaining life. Through much of the final 40 minutes, one of the most haunting passages in the history of the cinema, Szpilman is the sole ghost slinking through a ghost town. And yet this gaunt, bearded specter, scouring bare cupboards for handfuls of grain and scooping dirty buckets for water, has kept some spirit alive. He sits in the middle of an abandoned hospital fingering an invisible keyboard according to the repertoire in his brain.

Szpilman is an Everyman clinging to existence with gifts that every man doesn't have: a radical devotion to music and a huge talent for playing it. His purity beautifully offsets the movie's pageant of persecution and corruption, whether he's sanctioning, with a conductor-like gesture, the sale of his piano so his family can eat, or performing for the rich habitues of a ghetto cafe while the poor starve in the street. (In one shriveling moment, he must pause in his playing so two of the customers can test the clink of some coins.)

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