RogerBW's Blog

The Pianist 15 August 2022

2002 drama, dir. Roman Polanski, Adrien Brody: IMDb / allmovie. As the Jews of Krakow are rounded up into the ghetto, one pianist finds out that he's a survivor.

The shadow of Schindler's List lies heavy on this film: it's not just that 1940s Warsaw, rendered realistically, looks basically the same in both, it's that everyone who worked on this film and everyone who watched it could be presumed to have seen the earlier one. The biggest difference for me is that this film never breaks my immersion by setting up a Big Cinematic Moment, like the girl in the red dress or the weepy breakdown of "I could have saved one more"; although it's based on another book by a survivor (in this case Władysław Szpilman), and similarly it completely ignores what happened in Russian-controlled Poland after the war, it feels more raw and more real. (This can't be hurt by Polanski having himself escaped from the Kraków Ghetto in 1940, while Spielberg's grandparents moved to America in the early 1900s.)

The film does many things right. It introduces Brody as Szpilman, looking smug and self-satisfied as Brody tends to (and, to be fair, as Szpilman does in his pre-war publicity shot), but immediately wins me over by having him keep playing as the bombs get closer to the radio station. Yes, as a musician rather than a celebrity that is the thing you do. (This is one of the non-historical bits, mind; he played, and then the station got bombed, but there were some hours in between. Oddly, Polanski doesn't use the actual cinematic event, that the first thing Szpilman played on the radio after the war was that same Chopin piece, the Nocturne in C♯ minor.)

And while Schindler always felt for me as if the Holocaust were sitting in the background of every shot, here we see the gradual stripping-away of civilisation. We have to wear armbands; we don't get to use cafés or park benches; we have to live in this area now; they're building a wall; well, it could have been worse. The guards can make us dance for their amusement, or shoot us on a whim, but hey, mostly they don't. For me it's much more in the moment, and therefore feels more real. Each time the view moved moved from talking with Germans (in German) back to Poles talking with each other (in English), I expected the latter to be in Polish or Yiddish with subtitles.

Schindler puts everyone in a white hat or a black hat. This film gives us people who want to help… but not at the cost of their own lives or even all of their remaining comforts.

Which makes the one big misstep, at least by my standards, quite odd: yes, the historical Hosenfeld did pretty much what the film shows him doing, but he also did quite a lot for Poles in general, not just This One Special Guy. He gave prisoners of war access to their families, pushed for their early release, and later helpiedpotential Gestapo victims with papers and jobs in his sports stadium. The film simplifies him to the one Good Nazi who appreciates music and therefore spares Szpilman (and doesn't show him helping anyone else), and I think that's a cliché that would have been better avoided (especially since plenty of Nazis appreciated music and found no incompatibility between that and mass murder).

But that's really the one thing that's wrong, against an awful lot that's as it should be. This film moved me in the way that Schindler was clearly meant to, and didn't. I still don't think much of Polanski as a person, but my word this is a supremely good film.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

See also:
Schindler's List

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