Roman Polanski, “The Pianist” (2002)
Polanski has been a very significant director capable of making very moving and epic films with a strong message about the survival of vulnerable individuals in situations that threaten to overwhelm them psychologically and spiritually as well as physically. In “The Pianist” though, the objective of translating the memoirs of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911 – 2000), who survived Nazi German occupation of his homeland in spite of the dangers that faced him as a Jew, seems to have defeated the Polish director. While the film appears on the surface to be faithful in recounting the events that Szpilman observed and sometimes participated in, and is restrained in the way it portrays violence and brutality, it makes little attempt to study its protagonist’s psychology and his reactions to the brutality that robs him of his family and everything he has ever known, in addition to chronicling what happened in Warsaw from the time Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in September 1939 to its liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945. The result is a film that can feel very arduous and bland with a thin story stretched even thinner by the film’s 140-minute length.
The film follows Szpilman (Adrien Brody) from the time he and his family are rounded up in Warsaw and forced into a crowded ghetto with other Jewish families where they all try to keep up the appearance of a normal society – Szpilman finds work playing piano in a cafe for upper class Jews – while food supplies gradually dwindle and the overcrowding that occurs as more Jews are pushed into the ghetto leads to unsanitary conditions resulting in poor health and disease. Eventually everyone is forced to walk to the train station where they will be transported in cattle trucks to the Treblinka concentration camp. Szpilman is pulled away in time by a Jewish Sonderkommando police officer while the rest of his family is sent to the camp; Szpilman will never see his parents or his siblings again.
From then on, Szpilman struggles to survive inside and outside the Warsaw Ghetto with the help of others, including former fellow Polish Radio employees Andrej Bogucki (Ronan Vibert) and his wife Janina (Ruth Platt). Szpilman helps supply ammunition to ghetto inmates planning a revolt against the Nazi oppressors (this is the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943) and later witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, undertaken by the Polish underground resistance movement, in mid-1944. Like the Jewish revolt, this uprising fails, and in their anger the Germans systematically destroy the whole of Warsaw. Szpilman flees the apartment where he is hiding and find shelter in an attic of a house which turns out to be the headquarters of a Nazi German army unit. A German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, discovers Szpilman in hiding and learns that he is a pianist. Hosenfeld allows Szpilman to stay in the attic, if Szpilman will play the piano for him when he visits with food and clothing.
Watching Brody as Szpilman, good as he is and thoroughly deserving of the Academy Award for Best Actor won in 2003, I could not but feel that the character is essentially passive and helpless, and survives mainly through luck and the beneficence of others including the Wehrmacht officer. There are not enough moments in the film where Szpilman is inspired by thoughts of once again performing for Polish Radio or in concerts to continue living. His scenes with significant others such as Hosenfeld, the Boguckis and a radical activist in the Warsaw Ghetto are rather perfunctory and the audience has no real sense of these people making a deep impression on Szpilman. (For that matter, the characters of these people are also woefully under-developed.) At the end of the film, Szpilman seems little different from his youthful self back in September 1939. His effort to find Hosenfeld after the war is treated too sparingly and seems like an afterthought tacked inserted into the film’s coda. What might have helped the film develop some psychological depth is occasional moments where Brody’s voice narrates from the English translation of Szpilman’s memoirs passages of conversations he has with the people who save his life, what they talk about, what he thinks of them and they of him. The unlikely friendship between a starving, sickly Jew and the Nazi officer could have been invested with curiosity on the part of both about each other, what each thinks the other will do after the war and if he will have any regrets about the war and his participation in it.
With a flat matter-of-fact story culled from the memoirs, lacking in much insight, combined with a minimal style of direction and cinematography, the film seems much too long, especially in its middle part where Szpilman scurries from one hiding-place to another and major events happen around him as a helpless observer, and viewers not familiar with the history of Warsaw and Poland during the Second World War will become bored very quickly.
The film does work very well as a fictional chronicle of the tragedies that befell the Jewish community in Warsaw and of the failed revolts against the Nazis that resulted in the petulant actions the German occupiers took against the city itself by razing the majority of its buildings to the ground and destroying its culture. In its own minimalist way, “The Pianist” can be very moving and quite emotional as Szpilman manages – but only just – to survive the war and rejoin Polish Radio. Unfortunately though the plot is too paper-thin and the characters not defined enough for the movie to be more than just good.