Counterpoint

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Review of 'The Pianist', director Roman Polanski

When the Nazis invaded Warsaw in September 1939, 360,000 of the city's 1 million inhabitants were Jewish. By the time the Nazis retreated in January 1945 there were only 20 Jews left alive. 'The Pianist' is the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, one of those survivors.

Roman Polanski's understated film documents the growing horror of the occupation with the detached style of its source account, Szpilman's 'Death of a City'. We see the confiscation of Jewish property and funds segue into starvation level rations. Separation, in the form of banning access to public transport, parks, benches and pavements leads to absolute segregation, as the Nazis wall up a whole section of the city and designate it the 'Jewish District'. This vast yet horribly overcrowded prison was rife with starvation and epidemics. Its boundaries were continually reduced until in July 1942, 300,000 people were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.

'The Pianist' is a compelling personal tale which must have been immensely difficult for Polanski to make. As he recounts, 'I survived the Krakow ghetto (another Polish city subjected to similar abuse) and the bombing of Warsaw and I wanted to recreate my memories from childhood. It was also important for me to remain as close to reality as possible, and not make a film that was typically Hollywood.' This he achieves admirably. There is none of the overblown melodrama typical of tinseltown. Visually and musically, the film retains a dignified composure. The latter restraint is particularly notable--given Szpilman's talent as a pianist, the temptation to regularly inject his music must have been great. But it is the absence of his craft, the silence which surrounds him in his loneliness, which is so powerful.

His isolation develops after escaping the deportation to Treblinka, and later being smuggled from the ghetto to a series of safe houses. He flees shortly before the ghetto uprising, an inspiring insurrection of the 40,000 remaining Jews (only 200 of whom had obtained arms), which lasted almost a month and cost the Nazis severe casualties. It is here that the personalised narrative of the film is a disappointment. Polanski's refusal to follow Szpilman's family to Treblinka is understandable, given his own grief and his determination to avoid sentimentality. But only to see this uprising at a distance, through the curtains of Szpilman's window, feels a terrible letdown. The cinematic canon is rightly replete with the horrors of the Holocaust--but this feels as if an opportunity to explore the hope, the defiance against oppression, has been missed.

'The Pianist' intelligently explores the little solidarities that existed in the midst of the desperate betrayals, the Jews who refused to police their people for petty privileges, the non-Jewish Poles who risked their lives to give sanctuary to people like Szpilman. Resistance is celebrated, albeit subtly, but tethered to the pianist's narrative we barely see the greatest collective act of resistance to the Nazis.

This reservation aside, the film demands viewing. Its greatest asset is Adrien Brody, who embodies rather than plays Szpilman, and will be familiar to many readers from Ken Loach's 'Bread and Roses'. His CV displays the happy habit of choosing engaging films--among them Spike Lee's 'Summer of Sam' and the undervalued 'Restaurant'.

Two years before his death in July 2000, Wladyslaw Szpilman's account, which had been banned by the Stalinist authorities in 1946, was finally republished. In between he pursued a highly successful musical career as a pianist and composer. His first performance on Polish radio after the war was Chopin's 'Nocturne in D minor', the piece he had been playing when a Luftwaffe bomb interrupted him six years earlier.