Monday, November 26, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.16: Roman Polanski's The Pianist

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 83 (A-)

Roman Polanski’s journey to directing The Pianist was a long and complicated one. As a young Jewish boy in 1930s Poland, Polanski witnessed the Nazi atrocities firsthand, was separated from his family, lost his mother to Auschwitz, and survived more or less off of his wits, the kindness of strangers, and sheer luck. The director’s dark, depraved films frequently reflected the traumatic experiences of his life, but he refused Steven Spielberg’s offer to direct Schindler’s List. It wasn’t until Polanski came across the story of Holocaust survivor and acclaimed pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman that the director finally tackled the difficult subject matter. The Pianist eventually won both the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or in 2002 and three Oscars, including a surprise win for Best Director for Polanski. One could easily dismiss Polanski’s eventual win as the Academy’s long-held love for films about the Holocaust (for some real stinkers, see Sophie’s Choice or The Reader), but it would ignore how strong the movie is. As it is, The Pianist has been rightfully hailed as Polanski’s finest film since his 1960s/70s heyday, and as one of the few truly great films about the Holocaust.

Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is “the finest pianist in all of Poland…maybe the whole world”. Szpilman plays piano for Polish radio to great acclaim, but his prestige is thrown to the wayside with the German occupation of Poland in 1939. Szpilman and his family expect the war to end within months, but conditions grow worse in the ghetto and German treatment of Jews grows more extreme. While Szpilman’s family is sent to a concentration camp, a friend pulls him out of line, effectively saving his life. But now Szpilman must navigate the Krakow ghetto, avoid capture by the Germans, and trust a select few people to help him, with any wrong move costing him his life.

Polanski spent so much of his post-exile career (Tess notwithstanding) taking on gleefully trashy material (Bitter Moon, The Ninth Gate) that it’s easy to bemoan his decision to go back towards “respectable” subject matter rather than depicting the Holocaust as one of his signature fever dreams. But while Ronald Harwood’s script occasionally creaks over exposition, it never falls into self-important gussiness that frequently befalls Holocaust films. Better still, Polanski directs the hell out of the film. One of the better touches comes from a slow draining of color throughout the film’s runtime. Early on, Szpilman and company wear vivid, colorful period clothing, which gradually changes to muddy browns and dank greys, as if to suggest that hope and life have been slowly drained from Europe. That Polanski doesn’t make the shift an instantaneous switch compliments the matter-of-factness of the material and the gradual shift from everyday banalities and irritations to very real danger.

More effective still is Polanski’s always cunning use of perspective. The Pianist is seen almost entirely from the limited perspective of Szpilman, a man whose slightest misstep- trusting the wrong person, being at the wrong place at the wrong time- could get him killed. An early highlight shows Szpilman’s family witness the murder of an elderly Jewish neighbor in a wheelchair as he’s tossed out of a window- Szpilman can see his country slipping into madness and cruelty from his window. The use of perspective grows even more impressive as the film grows more episodic later on as the days blend together and Szpilman has to rely on friends- some trustworthy, some not- in order to survive. Szpilman also sees the Polish Uprising outside of his window. The use of perspective here serves both as a reminder of Szpilman’s need to retreat rather than be brave in order to survive and also as a peek into what would happen had Szpilman joined the resistance- admirable but futile action, and ultimately death. Polanski does not judge Szpilman’s actions, but rather plays the impassive observer (if impressive suspense director) to what had to happen in order for him to survive.

Polanski is well aided by Adrien Brody, who won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar (the youngest winner ever at the age of 29) for his subtly powerful performance. Szpilman is at once charming, self-deprecating, and witty, but a man whose increasingly gaunt figure and hollow eyes turn him into a shell of his former self, a ghost haunting the ghetto of Krakow. It’s a remarkable physical performance that relies on Brody’s ability to convey Szpilman’s every thought and passion with his eyes and posture, particularly late in the film when he can barely talk, lest he be overheard and caught.

Szpilman also serves as likely the best Polanski surrogate ever put on film- a man whose survival is best aided by dumb luck, who never knows who he can or can’t trust, and, most of all, as a man whose passion keeps him alive (here piano rather than film). The opening sequence shows Szpilman’s insistence on continuing his classical piece over the radio even as the Germans bombard the city; a later scene shows Szpilman’s irritation that his work is interrupted by the demands of the elite. But one of the best sequences in the film shows Szpilman behind closed doors, hiding in a friend’s apartment where he’s been told he needs to keep absolutely quiet. Szpilman sees a piano, sits down, and starts to play (I practically shouted “NO!” the first time I saw it), only for the camera to reveal that his fingers are a few inches above the keys, and he’s merely miming. It hardly matters- it’s the closest he’s been to music in ages, and it keeps him sane.

Two themes constantly reign in Polanski’s filmography: that of the power play, and that of a world gone mad. Polanski frames the Holocaust as the ultimate power play in a world gone mad- the rights of the Polish Jews are taken away little by little, and for no reason. First Szpilman’s family bicker and proclaim that they won’t wear the Star of David armbands, but as Szpilman’s father is slapped for walking on the sidewalk rather than in the gutter and old men are forced to dance for the amusement of the Germans, their situation becomes more serious. Questions and protestations by Jews are answered by gunshots or, if one is lucky, by a slap in the mouth. Szpilman’s family maintains a dark sense of comedy for some time until they can no longer joke- a final scene of tenderness before everyone but Wladyslaw is sent to the concentration camps shows the once middle-class family splitting an overpriced caramel together. Yet Polanski still manages to see the dark (if impossible to laugh at) humor in Szpilman’s survival- he’s spared not by his own wits, but by the luck of being pulled out of the line by an acquaintance, and even that comes with the knowledge that he’ll never see his family again.

Perhaps the finest scene in the film comes at the end, when a sickly and rail-thin Szpilman escapes to the ruins of a city and encounters a German captain. Throughout the film, Szpilman has encountered both good Poles and Poles who have bought into Hitler’s game, both trustworthy helpers and opportunists who have robbed him. Now Szpilman falls at the mercy of a Nazi. But the man knows that the Russians are coming, that Hitler’s game is up, and who perhaps never believed in Aryan supremacy in the first place. He asks Szpilman to play something on the piano, and Polanski bathes Brody in shafts of light as he passionately hammers out a beautiful Chopin piece. Captain Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), as we later learn he’s called, then clothes and feeds Szpilman, who survives and goes on to acclaim as a concert pianist once more.

The climax suggests an intelligent pragmatism from Polanski: just as there were good Poles and bad Poles, there were decent Germans among the party willing to do something good when it was needed. Still, this is a Polanski film, and the director doesn’t let either man off the hook entirely: Szpilman is given a German army coat to keep warm, but in a bit of dark irony is nearly killed by the Russians when they spot the coat and mistake him for a soldier. An even crueler bit of irony: Hosenfeld wasn’t as lucky as Szpilman. Despite the efforts of the latter to locate the former, he would perish in a Russian internment camp. His sacrifice was noble, but not without consequences. That’s the brilliance of The Pianist, and of Polanski: in a dark and depraved world, even goodness has its price.

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