Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Pianist [2002] - Polanski's Masterpiece

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 [1959], Exodus [1960], Judgment at Nuremberg [1961], Cabaret [1972], Holocaust (TV miniseries) [1978], but it wasn't until Sophie's Choice [1982] 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 [1993], 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 [1944], 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 [1941] to just a few productions, and, aside from The Magnificent Ambersons [1942] and Touch of Evil [1958], 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.         


J said...

Orson Welles, similarly exiled from Hollywood, under somewhat different circumstances

Slightly. Orson did not give a 13 yr old a quaalude and then forcibly sodomize her, as far as we know.

Polanski may be a talented director (tho' I think he's overrated as is his crony Jacko Nicholson--the pseudo-noir of Chinatown nothwithstanding), and the Manson biz was rather unsavory (then...a few whispers there are that Romie wasn't quite the innocent bystander--or Jacko and pals for that matter) but he pled to the charges, which were already lessened, ie BS.--the average perp would have done at least 10 years or so on that case (whereas RP got what 2-3 years )

So he didn't merely flee the country to escape bail on a pending trail, he in effect ...escaped a sentence, due to some glitch. Make the freak serve his time, or at least cough up a hundred thousand shekels or so.

Curtis Faville said...


You may have misunderstood my last paragraphs.

The point isn't that we need to punish Polanski, or that that is even an issue. What we have are his works, which are--as all works of important art are, to some degree--a witness to history--particularly The Pianist. My point was that the theme of this movie--which I take to be the vagary of fate in selecting specific witnesses to important events (certainly an integral theme in Moby Dick, for instance), is ironically linked to the Director-Writer's own life. This is no accident, in my view, but at least a partially unconscious choosing.

Polanski chose the movie. The movie chose him. But Polanski didn't choose to be Jewish, or Polish. Szpilman didn't choose to be Jewish, or Polish. These are facts. As time passes, we worry less and less about the conditions of an artist's life, and eventually they pass into irrelevancy.

I have almost no feeling about Polanski's fate with the justice system. I think it's irrelevant to the ultimate meaning of the film. He's a great director, whereas Tarantino is clearly not.

J said...

I haven't seen the Pianist, but...Tess was a moody boring flick, really (and RP was reportedly humpin' Kinsky's babe at what 14 or so...probably earlier ah wager), and ...Rosemary's baby?? Silly,if not ugly and perverse (don't forget RP was doing like Roger Corman-like schlock before his "auteur" phase).

Chinatown was a decent flick, but ...Nicholson's hardly Bogart, the script was by Townes (not RP) ...watching it a few years ago, I thought the cinematography clumsy, if not botched--washed out skies, overexposed--yes, they're going for the "Ellay look", but overexposed glaring skies are not too appealing either way...

That said, I agree people hear "Polanski" and probably think "ped" and don't really care about the movies. Then...Im not entirely sure that's mistaken. He probably symbolizes cinematic and entertainment culture, and corporate decadence to the Heartland--the Fatty Arbuckle meme, in a sense--the "he was a child of holocaust victims" line doesn't fly with me, at least ...many people are the children of parents who endured great hardships, even in the USA.

And again, he got off easy---I read the cop report--it was worse than most of the ho-wood types have said--, regardless of what la femme says now. I wager Nicholson, Beatty and the rest of the brentwood marxist posse paid off some pals in the LA black robe gang...

Curtis Faville said...


Again, you fall back upon the biographical hobby-horse.

I don't think either one of us really cares what happens to Polanski the man. Time cleans out the irrelevant details of life, and leaves the sifted durance.

If Polanski had never directed a film, his fate would be of NO interest to us at all. If we knew nothing about the man who made the movies he made, there'd be no biographical issue.

We need to look at art as art, not as a part of some larger ethical context in which the artist's life impinges.

J said...

following yr New critic line of argument, perhaps we should read say Goebbels' books, or analyze Leni Riefen-whatever films for the 3rd Reich.

While I agree the legal issues are separate from understanding the movies (but are they that high-brow, like Bergmann? ich denke nicht), the Polanski spectacle also says something about Ho-wood and celeb. power--

Were he re-tried in CA with the current fervor over abuse he'd most likely catch a forcible sodomy case, and he'd be doing hard-time for at least 10 years; really why does Manson (granted some okie psychotic POS) do life for conspiracy 187--not murder, and even a serious felony in some places, and a Polanski walks with stat. rape on a molestation case? Odd, ain't it.

Curtis Faville said...


Polanski's charge of statutory rape isn't the subject of my post.

But I will say this: As an artist, Polanski knew that going to prison wouldn't serve any purpose. Would it make you feel better?

I've addressed the issue of sex and children before in my post about Jock Sturges.

On a scale of values, I'd say Sturges is a much more dangerous and evil man than Polanski, yet he walks around scot-free. Even Polanski's "victim" has expressed the sentiment that the authorities should cease pursuing him.

I'd rather have had Polanski in Hollywood making movies, than sitting in a California minimum security facility, or cooling his heels in a Soviet prison for "censorship" crimes. The real criminals in this world are those who send children off to die in pointless wars. Or executives who legally rob tens of thousands of people.

99% of the real crime in the world is ignored by "legal" enforcement and justice systems.

Since I didn't wish to discuss Polanski legal problems, this is the last comment I'll post here about it.

J said...

There are far more sinister humans (like about any American politician) than Polanski, but, as I said, even in terms of cinematic product, Polanski's films aren't that much.

Chinatown was more or less lifted right from Mulholland's bio. Tess from the novel. His Macbeth, while somewhat entertaining (or at least with good actors) more or less standard theatrical fare, with some topless hotties. I'd rate Welles as quite a more original director...where's RP's Kane or Mag. Ambersons? Or his Strangelove? Or Wild Strawberries, etc ( the Pianist may be his opus, but reviews were mixed...maybe I'll rent 'er).

Directors are even more hyped than writers...really it's part of corporate kultur--The Director as the movie CEO

Kirby Olson said...

I think a single decent life counts more than all the art in the world stacked in one big pile even if I like art quite a bit.

I've never liked any of Polanski's art, though.

Favorite: fearless vampire killers.

At least he's not trying too hard.

Curtis Faville said...

A single decent life is a flatline of mediocrity. There are millions of humble, decent, ordinary people in the world. And they all in due course pass away. But art lives on.

Beethoven is greater than Haydn, and Haydn is greater than Berlioz. But their art is greater than any of them, and greater than all the rest.

Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist are works of cinematic genius. You don't even have to like the genres to appreciate them (horror, noir, and epic).

For you, Kirb, I think unpredictability must be a virtue.

Kirby Olson said...

A single ant walking through a macaroni noodle is worth all the art in the world.

Because the ant is actually alive.

Art has no real existence without life, and life is only given to us by God.

Art is therefore secondary, even if we really like it.

Also, no one ever passes away.

I did see parts of Pianist on TV the other day. I couldn't bear it, I confess.

I find it hard to forgive Polanski for his meanness, and think that his ruining the kid's life makes everything else he did something I'm not really willing to countenance.

Curtis Faville said...


It's odd how a discussion of a perfectly straightforward movie about the Holocaust in Poland becomes a discussion about child rape.

You seem to be unable to distinguish art from life in your mind. Artists are just people--we shouldn't expect them to be less culpable or more virtuous than anyone else. There's a long tradition among artists of experimentation and daring which suggests that the artistic mind is by its nature somehow less "responsible" and more inquisitive and adventurous than the "normal" one. I think this is something we accept as a part of the bargain with genius. Creative artists frequently are unfaithful, vindictive, intensely jealous, unscrupulous, selfish, and vain. These are all qualities which may or may not be of direct use in the creative process, but it's folly to think that there's some kind of useful connection between the virtuous life, and the creative impulse. There just isn't.

Medieval art isn't about religion, in case you hadn't noticed. It was about the appropriation of human ingenuity and genius to an expedient purpose. That is what we admire about it, or should.

And that is why we should honor great art no matter where it originates. The pigmy rapists of the world may also be artists. It's just a fact of life. One needs to get over it.

J said...

Kirby O's pseudo-moralistic rant aside, we might ask whether Polanski's really a great or not...

Ich denke nicht. In noir terms, Chinatown's not, say, the Big Sleep . It's got a rep. for being a klassic noir,, the movie just doesn't look very good. It's not jazzy or particularly urban but sort of suburban bleak. Miss Dunaway's femme fatale--she's more suited to the drunken ho she played in Barfly...

Nicholson attempts a sort of Phillip Marlow schtich...yet I don't think he manages it (even as say Bob Mitchum could). Jacko's a twisted sort of Marlon Brando-wannabe, but... Brando he ain't.

The story line's OK, but not the most concise--and not entirely accurate. Mulholland and LAWP ripped people off, yet it was hardly some great skullduggery....there were far more heinous acts going down. OK, it's perhaps superior to Tarentino's pop-pulp, but essence hardly different than a real weird Rockford Files episode...

(Macbeth's about the only RP flick I enjoyed to some degree, but that's due more to acting, tho' it did look spooky)

Kirby Olson said...

Art is of use only to the living.

Therefore, art is nothing in and of itself.

Therefore, life is more valuable than art.