Director: Roman Polanski
Black and white archive footage of Warsaw in 1939 (pre-war) actually creates a false concept of what the film is going to look like aesthetically. I do like the way the piano music links the archive footage with the start of the film. With a title like The Pianist you expect the soundtrack to be exceptional and Wojciech Kilar does not disappoint. The music is bewitching and emotive and very much a character in itself, or rather an extension of Adrien Brody‘s character, Wladyslaw Szpilman.
There is no gentle beginning to this film. Within minutes there are a number of explosions, completely at odds with the alluring piano music, and the building Szpilman is in begins to disintegrate around them forcing a mass evacuation. The slightly frenzied packing of the Szpilman family is becalmed somewhat by Brody’s calmness at Wladyslaw. The celebrations sparked by the announcement of war are abruptly cut short. The appearance of the Nazi army is commanding particularly the sound of hundreds of jackboots pounding the streets. The restrictions to the lifestyle of the Jews in Warsaw begin to trickle in slowly but steadily within the first 10 minutes of the film. Brody deals with the systematic humiliation and degradation in a calm and resigned manner, something that quickly becomes a key aspect to his character.
“The movie is particularly good at revealing the terrifying blend of arbitrary personal sadism of the individual German soldiers and the institutional brutality of the Nazi machine.” (903, Ella Taylor, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) As with Schindler’s List there are moments when the German soldiers’ view of the Jews is highlighted such as when the soldiers force waiting Jews to dance for their amusement. Equally there are horrific images of merciless persecution and execution. The soldiers throwing a wheelchair bound man off a high balcony is particularly shocking. Polanski includes scenes of the sorting of the Jewish possessions and the way the Nazis documented everything.
“Wisely, Polanski doesn’t comment: He seems to have decided that in the face of such meticulously planned horror, the best one can do is get the details right.” (903) He does not shy away from the dreadful conditions of the Ghetto. Its pretty common to see dead bodies lying on the ground with various characters routinely stepping over them to go on their way. The bodies become part of the everyday landscape. And while Polanski was in the Krakow Ghetto instead of the Warsaw one he is in a unique position to get these details right, having lived through the atrocities committed during the second World War.
The film moves at a brisk pace covering the war years quickly. Within the first hour we journey with the Szpilman family from the outbreak of war in 1939, to the move into the small Ghetto in 1940 and then another relocation in 1942. With each successive move the rumblings of rebellion and uprising get a little bit louder and stronger. There is something disturbingly iconic about the cattle cars. You see them and you just know that nothing good will happen to the people crammed within them.
The separation of the Szpilman family sees Wladyslaw become a lonesome wandering character, haunting the almost deserted Ghetto. Despite being the central character there is the sense that Wladyslaw almost exists in the shadows, never really drawing attention to himself, a characteristic that allows him to survive. The Warsaw Uprising in 1943 is covered in a very short space of time. Szpilman always has a perfect view of the uprisings (the one in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 and the Polish one in 1944) from his hiding places. We like him are witnesses rather than participants. The ringing in Szpilman’s ears when the tank destroys the building he is in is a discomfort that we as the audience experience with him.
“The Pianist is not an ideas movie. It has no particular ‘angle’ on the Holocaust.” (903) The Holocaust is an ever-present shadow but that is all it is – the film is not ultimately concerned with the annihilation of the Jewish population but rather the efforts of one man to survive. In some ways it’s kind of refreshing to watch a World War II film from a Jewish perspective that doesn’t focus entirely on the Holocaust. Yes the Holocaust was an indescribable evil perpetrated against the Jews but it wasn’t the only hardship they went through.
Szpilman becomes a recluse living a silent and solitary existence and throughout it all, all the hardships and difficulties, it is his love of the piano that keeps him from losing his mind. He may not be able to play aloud but he can always hear it in his own head. He is a shuffling shell of the man he used to be, aged long before his time due to his experiences.
Over the course of the film the color washes out becoming drab and muted where once there were bright, bold and opulent colors. It is a visual representation of how war ravages landscapes and buildings as well as people and bodies. The shattered landscapes are beautiful despite their destruction – a credit to the splendid cinematography.
I like the way Polanski has a German officer help Szpilman when he is in his final hiding place, then require the help of Szpilman after having been captured by the Russians during the German downfall. It’s an interesting point to take and reminds us that despite the atrocities carried out during the war there were also random acts of kindness.
Though The Pianist is still an emotional movie to watch it doesn’t quite have the same weight that other World War II films have and I think that may be due to the decision to pull back from the overwhelming presence of the Holocaust. As I said before it is really a film about one man’s survival against extreme odds. What gives it its emotional weight is the fact it is based on the real life of one man, Wladyslaw Szpilman, and the first hand experience Polanski could bring to the project. It makes you wonder what the film would have been like had someone other than Roman Polanski been at the helm.