The Pianist Review
Some would argue that there are films that you simply must have in your collection. They transgress genres, tastes, and even Box Office numbers, and are generally hailed as ‘classics’. I find that these lists of must-have titles often include movies that I, personally, can appreciate – but don’t ever want to see again, which renders them somewhat ineffective as inclusions in my collection. Schindler’s List may be an indisputably good film, but it’s one that I would not want to have to sit through again, and I’m praying that I never have to endure the seminal Requiem for a Dream again. It may be a masterpiece, but wow is that one of the toughest films that I’ve ever seen. So you can get some must-have additions to your collection which are, frankly, in name only. If you find that you are never going to watch these films again then why should you buy them? Just to say that you have them?
For me, Holocaust movies are not required viewing. No disrespect to those who survived it, but there’s no reason why the cinema-going public should have to sit through a haunting, no doubt painfully long, visual re-enactment of any part of the tragic affair. Honestly, I get the message, I’ve seen Schindler’s List, that’s enough already – maybe arguably too much. Unlike standard War movies, you just know that films that use the Holocaust as a central theme, or backdrop, are not going to turn out well. It’s going to be horror, horror, faint glimmer of hope, atrocity, horror, pain, suffering, death. So when exiled (and somewhat shamed) Writer/Director Roman ‘Chinatown’ Polanski decided to revisit his own heritage in 2002’s The Pianist, I steered well clear. It was a horrific accident waiting to happen that, frankly, I did not need to have burned into my psyche.
The movie tells the tale of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a gifted pianist whose life (amidst the millions others) is turned upside down after the Nazi’s invade Poland during World War 2. It starts with armbands and bowing to Nazi soldiers on the streets; dwindling money and rationing of food. Then there’s talk of a ‘Jewish quarter’. Pretty soon Szpilman and his family are herded – like cattle – into a tiny area. Over time, they are relocated from one place to another; the entire Jewish population of the Capital, Warsaw, being confined to increasingly small areas. Despite the startling violence that they are shown by their German captors, it takes a long time for the victims to realise just what is happening to them – to realise just where the trains of ‘relocated’ Polish people are ultimately heading. Somehow, through massive luck and happening to know the right (sympathetic) people, Szpilman manages to repeatedly evade both capture and death, riding out the many years of oppressed occupation, enduring as his friends and family get picked off one by one, and then, eventually, watching as the Polish resistance try their damndest to finally fight back. It’s a hard, long journey, striving from day to day just to survive – just to find a scrap of food to eat, or a place to stay which might not get raided, flamethrowered or shelled for at least a few days.
The Pianist is a very good movie. The Director Roman Polanski cleverly takes a very narrow perspective – one single Polish jew – and shows the entire holocaust from his perspective. He witnesses the beatings, the executions, the atrocities committed by the invading Nazis. We get to see how senseless it was, how unprepared the population was – just assuming that things would work out, that they were actually being relocated (and not being mass-murdered); and perpetually aghast at the way in which they were being treated. In this way the movie manages to be both personal and more globally shocking.
Adrien Brody puts in a powerhouse performance as the lead character, Szpilma, and manages to bring so much to a role that actually involves less words, and more physical tics and displayed emotions. He’s a cheery enough, happy, outgoing chap at the beginning, and – over the course of the movie – he devolves into a broken, anorexic wreck. Unlike many similar weight-loss endeavours (Christian Bale for both Rescue Dawn and The Machinist), Brody’s relies less on visible ribs and noticeable malnutrition to depict those facets of being simply starving, desperate for any morsel of food that may be found. I’m not a huge Brody fan, I find him quite draining in some of his roles – that perpetually put-upon look that furrows his brows – but I’d like to think that his performance here helped change that somewhat (and at least Polanski didn’t go with his first choice – the chisel-jawed, insipidly wooden Joseph Fiennes). And he really carries the movie – it’s all him. Sure, Dorian Gray’s Emilia Fox pops up (and puts in a cameo performance that makes you wonder why she hasn’t been in more stuff), as well as King Kong’s Thomas Kretschmann (again, a nice cameo for this German actor), along with plenty of authentic polish bit-parts, but Brody is the at the core of it all, and you see the crumbling world entirely through his eyes.
A very personal movie for Polanski, the film was based on the experiences of Szpilman himself, in a book that he wrote. Polanski too was a survivor of the War – a kid in Krakow during the Nazi occupation – and had apparently been looking for a suitable holocaust project for several years when he came across this piece (even turning down a request from Spielberg to direct Saving Private Ryan, choosing instead to do something less broad, and more personal). It is very clear that this was such a personal project, and that he took his time and got it right – got it perfect. It is the ultimate dramatisation of real-life events – documentary in content but cinematic in accessibility, conveying a great breadth of information and emotions over to the viewer without sensationalism and saccharin, yet still in a very watchable, arguably compelling, fashion. Every single scene is handled professionally – with even a few tense and explosive sequences thrown into the mix across the epic runtime.
It’s the ultimate story of survival, and Polanski has finally been able to cathartically address some of his demons here. It’s only a shame that Szpilman himself never got to see the final product, although by the account of his family members, he may never have wanted to. Which brings me to the whole problem with this seminal holocaust movie. There is an argument for never needing to see a movie like this. If you’ve seen Schindler’s List, why would you ever need to? Surely one horrific, epic holocaust movie is enough for anybody? Sure, they are both very different movies, but they both provide you with the same resultant effect: Schindler’s List visually addressing the sheer scale of the horror; The Pianist ebbing into your psyche by allowing you to imagine what is happening based upon the mere disappearance of people. But the effect is the same: you basically relive the holocaust, cinematically. And who would want to do that?
Szpilman’s own son says that he would never have wanted his father to see this, and the same argument applies for those who didn’t personally experience the holocaust. I’m definitely not playing down the horror of it all – but just how much holocaust does everybody have to (visually) endure for it to qualify as enough? Because honestly, this is a depressing, torturous movie. Don’t get me wrong – I know there is a message of hope here, of survival against all the odds, but this is not a story of a man who fought back, this is the story of a man who – by pure freaking luck – managed to avoid getting executed about a dozen times (or more). And the depressing side of it comes when you realise that everybody else is dead: the people who fought back, those who help him, his family, his friends, even his damn enemies. Dead dead dead. It’s not a spoiler – this is a holocaust movie, what did you expect? Tea and cake? The good guy gets the girl and kills all the bad guys? Nope, this movie is about death, and unforgiveable, unforgettable sins. Half a million Polish Jews were herded around during the occupation of Warsaw. A tenth of them survived incineration. The majority of the rest died in the Resistance. Dead.
If The Pianist had predated Schindler’s List, things may have been different. I could imagine seeing the movie, having my first taste of the horrors of the holocaust, and feeling like it was a movie that simply everybody should see (albeit once). And, after the very personal voyage, people may have later found Schindler’s List to be a revealing companion-piece, expansive in its depiction of the sheer scale of the event. Unfortunately, it went the other way around, and – after ‘List, I never wanted to go through that again. For all the praise I gave Polanski for creating this respectful, massively accurate tribute to the Polish victims – to his own family, and Szpilman’s too – it’s that very realism that makes it impossible not to be affected by the horror. It’s not a good effect either.
There are a few films that I have come across in my life which I have either decided I wish I had never seen in the first place, or which I never want to see again. Some of them I will never regard as particular classics (like Wolf Creek, however effective it was, it was just sick!), some of them are just plain bad movies, and some are indisputably good. Amidst the few that will haunt me, and which I really don’t want to have to go through again are Hunger, Dancer in the Dark and Requiem for a Dream; with Leaving Las Vegas making the list by default (I bought it but never explicitly acknowledged the reasons why I did not want to watch it again). Schindler’s List doesn’t haunt me per se – but has sufficiently etched the holocaust into my memory so that I would gain nothing from revisiting it. And Passion of the Christ should be on that list, but I’m still not convinced it’s a good movie. Still, it has the same thing wrong with it as the Pianist – it tells a story we all know far too well, in brutal, realistic fashion, adding no extra dimension to the proceedings, and merely attempting to get you – in as much as you possibly can in a dark but safe living room with a bright screen – to relive some truly horrific events. For me, the movies in this ‘genre’ that get rewatched are those that add something to what you already know, that make you stop and think – the massively underrated Scorsese epic The Last Temptation of Christ (for the subject of Christ) and Malick’s amazing The Thin Red Line (for World War 2 epics). The Pianist, for all its realism and authenticity, is almost a movie that nobody should have to endure.
Still, it’s all a matter of taste, and plenty of film buffs out there would say that no true film fanatic/collector has a complete collection without such seminal masterpieces as Schindler’s List or The Pianist (as well as most of the movies mentioned above). Personally, I think you have to consider whether or not you are ever going to watch these movies again – not because they are not great movies, but because they are just so damn painful to watch. The Pianist is a excellent piece of filmwork, the truest cinematic depiction of the effects of the holocaust, but it is so powerful and haunting that you could find that one watch may be more than enough.