In my blog for April 13th, 2010, I pilloried Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds as a piece of ineptitude and adolescent indulgence. Watching one kind of moviemaking can often cause us to forget temporarily the larger story. There have been countless movies made about World War II, and the complexities, dislocations and human dramas, both real and imagined, which it caused. For a long time--three decades, really--the movie industry gave us military adventures, espionage, suspense, and political intrigues about the war, but they shied away from dealing directly with the Holocaust.
A list of movies which touch on, but do not deal directly with, the subject of the Holocaust, would include The Diary of Anne Frank , Exodus , Judgment at Nuremberg , Cabaret , Holocaust (TV miniseries) , but it wasn't until Sophie's Choice  that we really get an unsanitized narrative devoted to the creepy details and up-close graphic violence of the Nazi tyranny. Then, of course, there is Schindler's List , a sort of epic of the Holocaust, which some have complained about as being too generalized, and unfocused, except perhaps on Oscar Schindler, the Polish industrialist responsible for salvaging a few hundred Jewish factory workers from being sent to the Death Camps.
Aside from Mel Brooks's The Producers, I can't think of another production--cinematic or legitimate--which treats the Nazi phenomenon comically, the way Tarantino appears to do. And Brooks's ironic approach is in fact a savage attack on Nazism, rather than the indulgent bit of mischief from Tarantino.
It's difficult to understand why the shenanigans of a spoiled, overgrown aging-teenaged lout like Tarantino can be accepted as quality film-making, when there are so many examples of superior work made from the same material. What kind of a mind derives unfettered amusement in depicting cold-blooded killers and their collaborators as fascinating, comical marionettes, utterly without moral ambiguity or irony? I asked, rhetorically, before how such material would be handled by a skilled film-maker, with a sensible view of history, instead of by someone like Tarantino.
Perhaps the best example would be Roman Polanski's film The Pianist. Based on a real character, Wladyslaw Szpilman, a classical pianist who survived to tell the tale of his years of concealment during the Nazi occupation of Poland, it accurately portrays the Kafka-esque existence of a fugitive living a shadow-existence for years in the Warsaw Ghetto, narrowly escaping capture and death, as the city is systematically gutted around him. The devastation of a whole people--as seen through the eyes and travails of a single, vulnerable, lucky witness--is made emphatically clear, and immediate, in a way that no dramatized account of personal heroism or valor could accomplish. Indeed, the value of witnessing history is raised to a high level here, as opposed to futile sacrifice.
Among contemporary film-makers, Roman Polanski is perhaps uniquely qualified to have directed The Pianist, since he was a direct participant in the events which the story depicts, having been trapped, as a child, in the Krakow Ghetto, his mother perishing at Auschwitz. Escaping the ghetto, and living as a Roman Catholic, he managed to survive the War and the occupation, to become the auteur we know today. Polanski's personal history gives to his handling of The Pianist account a biting veracity and immediacy. (One is reminded of Kosinski's The Painted Bird, another harrowing tale of a child wandering around Central Europe during the War years.)
Crucially, from a perspective of Polish nationalism and the plight of Poland in the 20th Century, it's important to note that The Pianist evokes nativist sentiment through the identity of Chopin, Poland's greatest composer, and one of the giants of classical music, and of the keyboard in particular. Chopin felt profoundly committed to his nation and his countrymen, and many of his compositions--particular the Mazurkas--are fervent hymns to, and evocations of, a proud patriotism. Making the central figure of the story a pianist who specializes in playing Chopin's keyboard works enables Polanski (a Polish nationalist himself in a way) to unite a sense of patriotic feeling with the victimization of the Holocaust, so that Szpilman's fate is identified as a symbol of Polish culture itself. It isn't just Jews who came under attack by the Nazis, but all of Polish history and civilization.
Szpilman isn't a particularly strong man, or a courageous one. It's his vulnerability, fragility which impresses one, rather than his cunning or intrepidness. He's a survivor, but his survival is almost an accident of fate. History chooses unlikely witnesses, and the testimony they provide is often greater than the value of their individual lives. (I touched on this previously in my post about Jan Karski, the Polish freedom fighter and underground courier, whose book Story of a Secret State , documents his travails on behalf of Poland in those years.)
Polanski's film, thus, serves as an extended, partially fictionalized, witness to history account not only of the Holocaust generally, but to the plight of Poland and Polish Nationalism generally. It may be seen that this apparent de-emphasis of the Jewish bias in documenting the Holocaust is in fact a more comprehensive view of the meaning of racism and ethnic persecution than has traditionally been employed.
Within the scope of the whole film in its final version, the key episode, towards the end of the story, occurs when Szpilman's hiding place in an attic of an abandoned building, is discovered by a German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. In what is probably the most suspenseful segment of the movie, Hosenfeld asks him to play something on a piano that has survived in the building. Obviously impressed by Szpilman's playing, deferring his natural inclination to kill him or turn him over for disposition to the camps, Hosenfeld allows him to live, and even brings him food and offers him his coat. Polanski plays the scene neutrally, allowing us to appreciate Hosenfeld's almost clinical appraisal of Szpilman's performance as an acknowledgment of the power of art, rather than of his sympathy with the pianist as a merely vulnerable human being. The power of the officer to give or take life is balanced against the rationalistic appreciation of beauty and genius, which may in his mind transcend the comparative pettiness of duty, even at the risk of his own honor, though at this late stage in the War, the Germans know that time is running out, and they're running out the string as the eventual losers.
Polanski has said that this scene is the key one for him in the movie. And indeed, from a biographical perspective, the director's own role as a persecuted artist--widowed by the Manson murders, and pursued by the American legal system for a case of statutory rape dating back to the 1970's--comes directly into play. Szpilman's jeopardy, as a talented artist wrongly persecuted because of his ethnicity and national identity, is held precariously at risk. Forced to abandon Hollywood, in 1978, in order to avoid an anticipated imprisonment, Polanski has lived for 30 years as a French citizen, until being arrested in Zurich last September at the request of U.S. authorities. The final outcome of this episode in Polanski's life has yet to be determined.
There have been many turns in Polanski's interesting life. There is no question that he is one of the greatest movie directors of all time, with The Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Tess, The Ninth Gate and The Pianist. There's no way to tell how many other good efforts he might have turned in, had he not been excluded from the movie capital of the world during the primary years of his career. Orson Welles, similarly exiled from Hollywood, under somewhat different circumstances, fared less well artistically, his directorial work severely limited after Citizen Kane  to just a few productions, and, aside from The Magnificent Ambersons  and Touch of Evil , rather forgettable.
In terms of Polanski's career, The Pianist occupies a central position, both for the power of its subject matter, as well as for the importance is carries in his biography. He could hardly have chosen a more useful narrative to express the dilemma of his own artistic life. Adrien Brody's performance earned him an Oscar, as did Polanski's direction.
Despite whatever happens in the justice system's case against him, Polanski's award vindicates in some measure the enforced neglect and frustrations that have dogged him throughout his life. As a witness to the hardships, both deserved and undeserved, which talented people may endure, his example is not without interest. You don't have to like people to admire what they may accomplish. Looked at in its entirety, Polanski's life is complex, and morally ambiguous. But he has turned his experience and feelings into high art. Art as witness, as the powerful testimony of history, may be the greatest gift any of us can give. That is what The Pianist is. And that is why it is so much more than anything someone like Tarantino can do. There's simply no comparison.