The Pianist (2002)

Dir. Roman Polanski. Starring Adrien Brody, Ed Stoppard, Frank Finlay

“It’s a funny time to say this, but” Wladyslaw (Brody) begins to say to his sister Halina (Jessica Kate Mayer) as they walk to the cattle cars which will take his family away from Warsaw. “What?” she says. “I wish I knew you better,” he finishes, looking at her with an expression that is mostly sad but which smiles anyway, and then looking away from her before she can look at him.

“I wish I knew you better” means almost anything you want it to mean, ideas as simple as “I love you” and “This is what we’ve come to” and “I’m afraid” and “I regret living the way I have” and “The end is near” all lining up on top of each other until the density of what Wlady has said to his sister is so great that we are sucked inside of it. There is no verbal response that Halina can give, and her tears are the only fitting response. At this point in the movie, audience tears might be anticlimactic. The endless series of indecencies which befall the Szpilmans (and every Jew in Warsaw) take the fairly lighthearted Wlady and turn him into a pale, stubbly shell of himself who tells his sister that he wishes he knew her better. We have, after all, listened to a woman wail “Why did I do it?” over and over again, only to learn that what she laments is smothering her own crying infant in the hopes that she won’t be found by the Nazis; the person who relates the story to the Szpilmans says that the soldiers heard the death rattle, and then she was found anyway. It’s a story which sums up the first hour or so of The Pianist, which is so bleak that it creates sympathy through journalism rather than sentiment.

On the day that the Nazi occupation of Warsaw begins, he is slightly wounded when the radio station starts taking some heat; all the same he is not stopped from flirting with an attractive young woman he meets on the stairs on his way out. That joyousness is beaten out of him when he and his family are moved from their luxurious flat to a smaller apartment (which, miraculously, they don’t have to share with another family); when his brother Henryk (Stoppard) is picked up by the cops and is only just rescued in time by Wlady; when he plays little tunes for the lunch crowd and is told to hush up so people can judge if some coins sound counterfeit; when he cannot enter a cafe and cannot sit on a bench; when an old man across the street, confined to a wheelchair and unable to rise when told to by the Nazis, is tilted over a balcony; when, down to their last twenty zlotys, his father (Finlay) uses the money to split the world’s costliest caramel into six pieces with a penknife for the family’s final shared meal.

The Pianist is about the Holocaust, and Warsaw, and, it seems to me, about Poland in particular. As a movie about Polish struggles it holds the line with Wajda; as a movie about the Holocaust it is extremely fine, one of the rare pictures about the genocide which can tell one person’s story without fumbling the tragedy of millions. (The question of putting the Holocaust on film is one that I’ve tried to work through before, and most of what I think has been said either in my review of Schindler’s List or my review of Son of Saul.) Szpilman survives almost entirely through chance, which seems to have been the case for most Holocaust survivors; merit and effort could only have done so much in the face of industrialized mass murder. He comes with significant advantages which more proletarian victims did not have. He has his musicality, and a long list of friends outside the ghetto, and he has enough of a relationship with one of the Jewish police officers, the one who released Henryk earlier, that that man grabs him and throws him behind the line of police officers. “I just saved your life,” the cop says, and admonishes him to get out. He does, beginning a two and a half year hideout in the wreckage of Warsaw.

For the better part of a year he is one of the Jews working in the city under direct Nazi supervision; he helps to smuggle in weapons for the rebels, but leaves before the uprising begins. He watches it, ashamed of himself, from a safe distance. Some of if it is spent in silent and relative luxury in empty apartments where his friends bring him food and he spends his days in quiet so as to keep the neighbors out of the loop. The last part of it is spent hungry, thirsty, and freezing in the streets, going from hideout to hideout—a deserted hospital, a collapsing mansion—to stay safe. He finds a way to eat virtually anything across that time; one of the prizes is a can of pickles which are heaven knows how old. Brody won an Oscar for this role (beating Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill Cutting is sort of like the Eagles beating the Patriots in this last Super Bowl), and there are in my mind three ways he won it. First, he pretends to play piano, and any musical skill is Academy catnip; second, he says that line about wishing he knew his sister better; third, he holds that can of pickles the way Brigitte Fossey holds her dead puppy in Forbidden Games. There’s a moment in the movie when he is trying to open them up with the tools from the fireplace and drops the can, which rolls on the floor and all of the precious liquid inside comes out; it’s less crushing than watching an old man eat a hominy off the street while the woman he stole it from weeps and walks away, but it is a profound moment all the same.

A Nazi officer (Thomas Kretschmann) discovers Szpilman and asks him what he does. I used to be a pianist, Szpilman replies. The officer shows him to the filthy piano in this failing house, and asks him to play something. It has been more than a year since Wlady has played; the last time we saw him with a piano, he left his fingers three or four inches above the keys because of the threat of being discovered. With this piano, in front of a Nazi officer who might shoot him at any time because that’s what they do, a man who has met the edges of humanity sits down on a chair he’s pulled over. The cold winter light is coming in on top of his head, shaggy and bearded for want of a barber. At his right: the Nazi’s hat. At his left: the jar of pickles. They are like an absurd angel and devil at his shoulders. He sort of squeezes his hands together, fingers numb with hunger and fear and cold. By any reasonable standard, it should be the last time he expects to sit in front of such an instrument; perhaps he is wondering at what to play, weighing the pieces he still knows against what he is capable against what one chooses to play for a Nazi against what one’s final performance should be. All of this—and the next four minutes to come—makes for one of the great advertisements in talkie film history to get rid of the talking. He chooses Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, a difficult piece in the best of times, and at first it sounds like he’s nervous, reminding his fingers of the feel of the keys, rediscovering the sound of the world’s most beautiful and complex instrument. Eventually he begins to warm to it, the light across his hands, warm air billowing out of his nostrils. He tightens his shoulders and bends into the music itself as it becomes more rapid and frantic. It’s one of the finest scenes I’ve ever come across in a movie; it is an object lesson in simplicity, of what happens when a filmmaker pares away what is unnecessary and leaves us with the ability to get into our own heads and feel. We have been too worried for Szpilman, too anxious for him and his ever more frail condition, to really care about him. For this stretch of the movie we are invited to care about him, and what we weather while doing so is a powerful flood.

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