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The Pianist is a film of exile. Not only was it made by a survivor of the Krakow ghetto and the bombing of Warsaw who has been prevented from working in the United States for nearly 25 years, but it bypasses the usual Holocaust-movie trope of showing its characters sinking from one dehumanizing unpleasantness to another in favor of the sustained tension of dislocation. For
Jewish-Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Holocaust survivor who died two years ago, Warsaw under siege was a giant machine pushing the smooth, popular entertainer further from his family, his art, and his vision of self, all within the physical space of a few square miles. Szpilman’s story is most unusual, but the grace and intensity director Roman Polanski brings to its telling feels simple and natural. Not until the coda is the sense of distance—and its irreparable damage—snapped into focus.
Polanski begins at the usual place, as the war’s first needlings encroach upon the lives of the artsy Szpilmans. We see Wladek (Adrien Brody) at work, effortlessly unfurling Chopin during one of the live radio broadcasts that have made him something of a local star, while bombs shatter the studio’s glass. His composure is admirable, if somewhat arrogant—he’s the kind of urbane middle-class artiste who believes nothing bad can happen to him. He’s swanning around a porcelain-featured blonde; home is a cozy, argumentative den of vivid personalities: Dad’s a violinist, Wladek’s pugnacious brother is movie-star handsome, and his two sisters are forthright and opinionated, with wild hair and mobile faces. It’s a certainty, of course, that the Szpilmans are in for pain, separation, and death, but certainty does nothing to prepare the viewer for the film’s subsequent skew into absurdity.
Some frantic negotiation fails, and after a time in Warsaw’s infamous Jewish ghetto, which the denizens sturdily refashion into a deprivation-tinged microcosm of their previous existence, Wladek is left alone in the shell of his city. Polanski boldly refuses to give the audience any more information than his lead character has—no handy radio signals clear up just long enough to announce that the Soviets have joined the Allies, no subtitles state that we’re only a week away from Pearl Harbor. He keeps the focus tight and the action loose as Wladek is forced into increasingly desperate hidey-holes. Wladek has nothing to do but stay alive for lonely weeks, his only information glimpses of hideous random brutality seen through cracks or windows.
The director’s control is impeccable, but his rage is manifest in the careless precision of the violence—so awful, so sudden, and so frequent. During one sequence, Wladek’s tiny view of the street is of a group of corpses piled and set aflame; he watches them grow cold and decompose day after day. The scenes tell Wladek nothing but that he is, in the ludicrous mathematics of genocide, “lucky,” and, if his luck fails, that he’s quite likely to be gunned down by an SS officer in a playful mood, drunkenly celebrating New Year’s Eve.
As Wladek is increasingly isolated, the dangers of his dependence grow higher and the war closer. Saved by an old friend who’s now a member of the Jewish collaborationist police, cached in various empty apartments by colleagues, and finally, reliant on the sympathetic tendencies of a music-loving German officer, Wladek lets his resourcefulness wane along with the quality, such as it is, of his situations. (Viewer tip: The helpful blondes are two different women, although they seem to be wearing the same hat. Literally.)
Brody is splendid in every scene, his rakish self-assurance a little off-putting in the early parts, his determination poignant as his fingers make phantom music hovering above a piano whose sound would surely give him away. Wladek ultimately ends up a hairy, scrabbling hermit living in the attic of a bombed-out ghetto apartment, as pathologically attached to a can of food—is it watermelon?—as Tom Hanks’ castaway was to Wilson. He’s stripped of dignity and even fear when confronted by a German officer, and answers questions—Where are you staying? Are you a Jew?—with a helpless honesty that’s almost painful to watch. By the end, Brody’s unblinking hot-fudge eyes are all that’s left of Wladek’s face, and it’s impossible not to look into them.
Although this is a movie about a musician, Polanski does away with extraneous music. For most of the film, Wladek doesn’t perform. It’s a quietly furious move: Adding beauty to all the movie’s ugliness would only mock it, so Polanski doesn’t allow even this relief for the audience. The Pianist’s title itself is a constant reminder of Wladek’s true vocation—and a gaping, accusatory lacuna throughout. He’s a pianist with all the talent, fineness, elegance, and sensitivity the vocation requires, but the new rules of his upside-down world have rendered his art as expendable as his life. CP