Eyewitness to History

I was going to see my favorite pianist - what? sold out? why didn't I anticipate that? - so, thwarted, I turned around and saw The Pianist. I didn't plan it that way, but it makes for a good introduction.

So, I was a little miffed as the film started, and the seats didn't help. And then the people a row back who, later on, seemed to think they were watching a comedy, well they didn't make it easy to stay in world of the film.

But what about the film, you say. I'm getting there.

Adrian Brody is Wladyslaw Szpilman (and I only was one letter off going by memory - I impress myself), an accomplished Polish pianist - and a Jew. Given that the story starts in 1939, it's not hard to guess he has a hard time coming pretty soon.

And yes, the story is a very familiar one, perhaps most famously shown in Schindler's List. The Germans come in, enacting successively harsher rules squarely on the Jews - from wearing identifying armbands, to walling them off in their own ghettoized neighborhood, to shipping them to places like Auschwitz and Treblinka to be exterminated. This must be one of the most common historical settings, for we even have had a bad comedy set in the Warsaw ghetto - the Robin Williams vehicle Jakob the Liar.

So how does The Pianist distinguish itself? Much has been said about Roman Polanski making this very personal film, touching on his own family history in Poland. I was left wondering for a while what the big deal was. Perhaps I was still stewing about missing the concert.

The Pianist is primarily shot through Szpilman's eyes - it's his viewpoint, and it seems like most events simply happen to him, rather than being instigated by him. He's almost a tourist wandering through the ghetto, seeing atrocity after atrocity. With such a simple organizing principle at the heart of the film, it seems a mistake the couple of times the narrative slips to other people.

From losing his family, to slipping out of the ghetto to live hidden by the underground in unoccupied apartments, to making due anywhere he can when the city is demolished by fighting, he presses on, an atypical hero who deserves such a title simply by refusing to give up the will to live.

Adrian Brody is fairly amazing in this role, a tough one in its relative passiveness. The shoot must have been grueling, especially where Szpilman is suffering from hunger, malnutrition, and probably can't even remember the conversation he had with anyone. Brody lost a significant amount of weight for the role, and by the time things are over, has passed through stages most of us would rather not think about. And on top of that, he plays a fairly convincing piano. One can argue Jack Nicholson might have deserved the Best Actor for About Schmidt this year, but Brody's Oscar win is definitely recognition for what an arduous role this must have been.

Wladyslaw Szpilman was an actual survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, and wrote the book upon which this film is based. To an extent, that explains the earlier confusion I had over what the film was trying to be. Adaptations of people's lives tend to have this quality of being a little less focused on particular things, because people's lives do not typically bend well to story and character arcs. Here, with the passiveness of Szpilman, it's almost like he becomes a vessel for own witnessing of these events. All he ever really wants to do is play the piano.

I can't finish this without mentioning the production design and effects used on the film. Nowhere near as much money was spent as Schindler's list, but the result is almost as good. In fact, compositing technology is so much further along, the shots of destruction in Warsaw are well beyond what Spielberg could have created at the time of his film.

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