Portraits of the Artist

Roman Polanski's world is predicated on violent absurdity, and in the first few moments of his new movie, The Pianist, war breaks out with alarming matter-of-factness. Giving a piano recital of a Chopin nocturne in a Warsaw radio station, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is barely distracted by some agitation in the control booth. The sound of bombs shatters the glass, but the composed performer keeps playing until he is literally blown off his stool—the first of a series of precise notes that smash one illusion after another.

Adapted from Szpilman's memoirs, first published in Poland as Death of a City in the aftermath of World War II, The Pianist exhibits an admirable economy—at least for its first half. In short order, Warsaw is occupied, the musician and his middle-class family are subject to escalating Nazi regulations, and then, along with 350,000 other Jews, they are marched off to Warsaw's newly walled ghetto. The Pianist won the Palme d'Or last May at Cannes, but critics were generally underwhelmed. Yet the movie is neither familiar nor bland. Polanski's vividly detailed representation of the Warsaw Ghetto, re-created on a German soundstage, is unprecedented in its emphasis on class, crazies, and especially children.

Have these images of mass deportations, summary executions, and purposeful starvation been Spielbergized? No filmmaker is more entitled to this material than Polanski, who, at the age of nine, was thrown by his doomed mother from an Auschwitz-bound transport. (Making his way back to Kraków, the boy lived as a smuggler until the ghetto was liquidated, and thereafter survived the war hidden by a Polish family.) The film is, however, only autobiographical in Polanski's capacity to visualize the context of Szpilman's story—the ghetto's teeming street life, its enforced moral breakdown, and its grotesque administration.

As much witness as protagonist: Brody in The Pianist
photo: Guy Ferrandis
As much witness as protagonist: Brody in The Pianist


The Pianist
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Ronald Harwood, from the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman
Opens December 27

Written and directed by Menno Meyjes
Lions Gate
Opens December 27

Catch Me If You Can
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Jeff Nathanson, from the book by Frank W. Abagnale and Stan Redding
Opens December 25

Even as human suffering approaches critical mass, the movie is remarkably distanced. From their window, the Szpilman family watch the theater of someone else's arrest—for convenience, the Germans dump an old man in a wheelchair out the window, then shoot his relatives in the street. The fearful scene in which thousands, including the Szpilmans, are brought to the Umschlagplatz, the ghetto's central square, for deportation to the east is cannily miniaturized in terms of Szpilman's impressions. A tough little kid (who might have been Polanski) is hawking caramels for a shocking (and worthless) 20 zlotys apiece—the family's last act is to buy one and divide it six ways. Then, as they vanish into the cattle cars, fate yanks Szpilman in another direction. His father waves goodbye, as though from the grave. The absolute suddenness of Szpilman's solitude occasions the most stunning image—the pianist stumbles toward a retreating camera, weeping through streets of detritus, tripping over corpses and into a trashed hovel.

Like Gangs of New York, The Pianist is a lovingly detailed studio evocation. Its problem, however, is precisely the opposite. Where Gangs feels truncated, The Pianist suffers from over-explanation. The movie maintains tremendous momentum through the Szpilman family's deportation. The second half is another story—alone, Szpilman manages to escape, and Polanski feels obliged to provide an hour's worth of cowering and quaking. Hidden by Polish friends, Szpilman has a front-row view of both the 1943 ghetto and 1944 Polish uprisings—he's frozen to his seat until, as in the movie's first scene, German artillery blasts him from his hideout.

This passive hero is as much witness as protagonist. Present in nearly every scene, Adrien Brody carries the film with his refined looks and thin, beaky elegance. He's blasé, foppish, almost a dandy, although when playing in a black-market café for the ghetto elite, he seems wired to the keys—a last vestige of civilization—by a current of fear. Szpilman survived not because he was talented, but through an inexplicable combination of good luck and guardian angels; Polanski is well aware that no Jew could have lived through World War II on Polish soil without the life-risking help of at least one Pole. Szpilman's case is more unusual in that he was also protected by a German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld.

Late in the war, Szpilman returns to the rubble of the now empty ghetto, wandering through an empty house clutching an unopened tin of pickles that he has scavenged. Barely recognizable as human, he is discovered by Hosenfeld, who interrogates him and orders him to play. That there is a grand piano on the premises goes beyond surrealism. This real-life encounter is as disorienting as the shot Luis Buñuel couldn't include in Los Olvidados—the proposed track through a wretched Mexico City shantytown to reveal a symphony orchestra performing in a vacant lot.

The eponymous hero of Menno Meyjes's Max is another suavely civilized young European Jew. Having lost his arm—as well as his illusions—-in World War I, Max Rothman (pomaded John Cusack) has returned home to Munich to open a gallery for modern art. Max's main attraction, however, is the shabby little soldier who shows up during a George Grosz opening. Max detects an interest in art. "What's your name, corporal?" "Hitler . . . Adolf Hitler" is the sour reply.

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