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'Pianist, The'

'The Pianist' is a Holocaust masterpiece

Friday, January 10, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

The best film of 2002 is the one you heard least about, by the director you've heard most about in the past: Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" -- the most devastating Holocaust drama yet filmed.

'The Pianist'

RATING: R for violence, language and adult themes

STARRING: Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox, Frank Finlay

DIRECTOR: Roman Polanski

WEB SITE: www.thepianist-themovie.com


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It is a brilliant, excruciating account of Polish pianist Wladyslaw ("Vladek") Szpilman's nightmare journey from toast-of-the-town to hunted animal. At 27, he was one of Poland's top concert artists and composers when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. "Now all will be well," says his father: France and England had declared war, too, and now Poland would not be alone.

Cut to the lightning-fast Nazi occupation of Warsaw -- to the denial and disbelief of such refined Jewish families as the Szpilmans. 360,000 of Poland's 3.5 million Jews lived there -- a vibrant, integrated one-third of the capital's population. By the end of 1939, they were barred from hotels, restaurants, public transport, park benches, even sidewalks -- forced to wear Star of David armbands and conscripted into labor squads.

Within 10 more months, the Szpilmans were evicted from their elegant apartment and herded with their brethern into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, a walled-in hell hole where 100,000 soon died from disease, starvation or random Nazi murder. Szpilman survived and desperately tried to keep his family together by playing piano in a bar full of black marketeers and Jewish police-collaborators.

This first half of the film, chronicling the step-by-horrible-step dehumanization, becomes almost unbearably painful to watch. It gets down to fighting over scraps of food and paying 20 Polish zlotys for the single piece of caramel candy that constitutes the Szpilmans' "last meal" together. "Where are you taking us?" a woman asks a Nazi guard as the railroad deportations begin in March 1942. His response is a casual bullet to her head. Each new small or large atrocity deepens the pit-of-your-stomach ache until you think you can stand it no longer. It is not that the images themselves are hideously gruesome; what's most hideous is the foreknowledge of where those trains are going and what will happen next.

But Polanski mercifully doesn't take us there. He knows we are at the breaking point, midway, when Vladek is suddenly yanked from the cattle car that took the rest of his family to their deaths at Treblinka. From now on, our focus will be riveted on the pianist's personal, not communal, struggle for survival, playing lethal hide-and-seek in Warsaw -- and playing his piano in silence.

It is as suspenseful as anything you've seen on the subject before or since "Schindler's List" -- un-Hollywoodized, with its dramatic intensity and historical significance heightened by the second-half backdrop: the doomed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of spring 1943. By then, only 40,000 Jews remained. The Germans never imagined they would fight back so fiercely and heroically.

Heroic is also a fitting word for young American actor Adrien Brody's performance in the title role. Hitherto not well known (despite good turns in "Summer of Sam" and "The Thin Red Line"), he is gently heartbreaking in his sophisticated naivete and complex simplicity -- a couple of oxymorons that may or may not convey the un-melodramatic subtlety of his characterization, which is aided by a fabulous epic-ethnic nose of Cyrano proportions: "Tis a rock, a crag, a cape -- a cape? Say rather, a peninsula!"

The tense screenplay by Ronald Harwood ("The Dresser"), based on Szpilman's autobiography, is uniformly well rendered by the rest of the cast, most notably Frank Finlay as Vladek's stunned father and Thomas Kretschmann as the Nazi deus ex machina officer for whom Vladek plays Chopin's G Minor Ballade (Op. 23) in the film's most profoundly moving scene.

But the most brilliant element is Polanski's gripping, grueling direction that infuses every emotional minute and fires every scene. As a child, he survived the bombings of both Warsaw and Cracow. This -- after the great success of "Repulsion," "Tess," "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" -- is his first film made in Poland since his debut with "Knife in the Water" 40 years ago.

A film this crushing sweeps away the conventional trivialities that usually greet us at the cinema. The issues don't get any bigger. I've taken many lumps from people objecting to the inclusion of political views in critiques. But movies, at their best, are supposed to make you THINK. So get ready for some (far more objectionable) theological views, induced by "The Pianist":

1) Of the three great biblical virtues, Faith and Charity made sense, but I could never quite understand Hope. It always seemed like a redundant paler version (and natural part) of Faith. Too late in their tragedy, some victims in "The Pianist" ask themselves and each other why they didn't -- or don't -- fight and die on the spot, take a few filthy Nazis with them, rather than submit to each stage of the torture? A remnant of them did so in the ghetto uprising, but most did not respond with resistance. They responded with HOPE. It springs eternal. But Hope was no virtue. It was a terrible, fatal mistake.

2) It may be human to err and divine to forgive in general, but not here: It is hard to forgive God for the Holocaust. He was AWOL when six or 10 or 20 million devout Jews and Christians (counting the Slavs) desperately beseeched Him. The best that can be said is that He and His existence were irrelevant to the Holocaust. It was no more "God's will" that Szpilman survive than that the others be killed. If He deserves no blame for the latter, He deserves no credit for the former. The redemptive triumph of survivors like Szpilman -- and non-survivors like Anne Frank -- is a phenomenon of the human, not divine, spirit.

That is the mega-tragic but somehow life-affirming bottom line of this powerful film and the unspeakable horror it depicts, the masterpiece/ epiphany in the lifetime of a troubled filmmaker with unspeakable horrors of his own and Charles Manson's to live with.

When the Germans were finally forced to retreat from Warsaw in January 1945, approximately 50 Jews were left alive in the city. Vladek Szpilman (whose name, beautifully, means "player") was one of them. His redemption was in the struggle to live -- and the music that accompanies it.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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