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.
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.
No movie can recover from an exchange like that, but although Max is a kitschy and often risible historical fantasy—the character Max is fictional—this Hungarian-Canadian-British co-production, directed by Meyjes from his own script, is not devoid of ideas. Meyjes is hardly the first to portray Hitler as a frustrated artist—but, as suggested most recently by Brigitte Hamann’s Hitler’s Vienna and Frederic Spotts’s Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, the Nazi project was a monstrous gesamtkunstwerk. For all its flaws, Max does propose a credible young Hitler, played by Noah Taylor as an unpleasantly opinionated, arrogantly ascetic, defensively vain autodidact with a diffident sneer and a bottomless well of grievance to draw upon.
Max finds Hitler’s battlefield drawings promising but superficial. The artist needs to find an “authentic voice.” The would-be painter meanwhile is being recruited by his commanding officer as a propagandist. Thus, the war for Hitler’s soul: Max attempts to transform him into a modern artist; the future führer tries to paint but can manage only a tiny black line. “You’re a bit lazy, Hitler!” Max observes, comparing the ill-tempered corporal unfavorably to another gallery artist, Max Ernst (whose The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child is on exhibit some half-dozen years before it was painted).
As shot in Budapest, 1918 Munich has marked affinities to the recent art world. Max’s gallery is an abandoned factory. Artists, like the version of Hannah Hoch played by Leelee Sobieski, live in raw lofts. Performance art is a given. To accommodate Hitler, Max invents a new school, kriegkunst. But Hitler, who is having more success as a beer-hall rabble-rouser than he is securing a one-man show from Max, is onto something else, scrawling a new formula: Art + Politics = Power. “This is the new art, Rothman!” he shrieks. “I am the new avant-garde.”
Hitler, Meyjes stresses, is impervious to irony. Max, unfortunately, is not. The movie winds up reducing the tragic history of the 20th century to a paradox of bad timing. Still, this facile punchline doesn’t entirely dispel the film’s strained but serious approach.
Steven Spielberg’s seasonal offering Catch Me If You Can is also based on a true story—the career of teenage con man Frank Abagnale, who passed himself off as an airline pilot, doctor, and lawyer, cashing millions of dollars’ worth of bad checks all the while. The movie has a generic resemblance to Wendell B. Harris’s Chameleon Street, but where Harris’s psychodrama was a mordant metaphor for race and passing, the dubious-sounding Abagnale story is played as a breezily Spielbergian tale of parental loss and redemption.
Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) grows up in suburban New Rochelle, the child of an ex-GI (Christopher Walken) and his French wife (Nathalie Baye). This high-strung and romantic couple generates more interest than anything else in the movie, and the viewer suffers as much as Frank when they separate. The boy runs away to New York City, where he quickly learns the power of a uniform and embarks on his improbable impersonations. Catch Me If You Can is set in the mid 1960s, and Spielberg enjoys reconstructing the period, albeit with cathedral lighting, as well as the plot’s media-driven aspects. (When Frank decides to become a doctor, the young prodigy studies Dr. Kildare; before taking the bar exam, he immerses himself in Perry Mason.) DiCaprio is far more successfully cast here than in Gangs of New York: His performance is all about acting; it’s a mild kick to see how he’ll manage to talk his way out of nearly every scrape.
Frank is trying to please his father and get his parents back together. With the entrance of Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the FBI straight arrow obsessed with bringing him in, the filial relationship takes on another dynamic. Sporting a stingy-brimmed hat and erratic Boston accent, Hanks gives a ludicrous performance. As sentimental as he is crusty, this huffing, puffing pooperoo looks primed to break into a hoedown at the drop of a corncob. (“I guess they couldn’t get Dan Aykroyd,” a colleague noted.) Frank takes to calling the workaholic G-man on Christmas Eve, and given that this slight comedy clocks in at 140 minutes, it’s a season’s greeting that gives for years.