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Movies: The Pianist
I figured I was done with Holocaust movies. Actually, I figured I was done with Holocaust movies after Schindler's List, but I had to concede that "Life Is Beautiful" was astounding. After that, though -- after seeing a freakiní comedy about the Holocaust -- I was certain that I was totally, completely, 100% done with the whole genre. And then came The Pianist by Roman Polanski.
The story begins by recounting the travails of one Polish family; later, when they become separated, the film focuses on just one member of the family, musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whose memoirs the screenplay is based. Although The Pianist covers some well-trod ground, it does so in a way unlike any other Holocaust movie I've seen.
First, The Pianist does not take the "bird-eye" view of the war that so many WWII films adopt. There is no omniscient voice-over giving the audience month by month updates on what was transpiring elsewhere in Europe. Instead, we see things through the eyes of the Szpilman family, who only know a tiny fragment of the whole, whose knowledge of whatís occurring is confined to what they hear on the radio. This gives the entire first half of the film a very claustrophobic feel, and is more dread-inducing that having the entire story told. When someone insists that the Nazis would never try to exterminate the Jews and waste such a huge labor pool, Polanski trusts that the viewers are sufficiently educated to know that this will not prove to be the case.
Secondly, everyone in The Pianist behaves like a real human being rather than Symbolism On Legs. When I was in 11th grade Lit, we were taught that symbolism is when a writer uses a small, fictitious thing to represent a large, real thing. The turtle in Grapes of Wrath, for example, stood for the Oakies: slow, earthy, and almost impossible to kill. The two pigs in Animal Farm are analogous to Stalin and Trotsky. The flowers outside Hester Prynn's jail cell represent freedom. Get it? Here's, James Cameron to the contrary, what's not symbolic: the Titanic hitting a iceberg and sinking. Rather than being an enormous symbol for man's hubris, the Titanic was an actual ship that hit an actual hunk of ice and took an 1520 actual people to their grave.
Likewise, the Holocaust is not a giant symbol for Man's Inhumanity To Man -- it was a real event involving real people. But Holocaust filmmakers tend to make every Nazi The Incarnation Of Evil, and every Jew an Example Of The Indomitable Will Survive, and every event A Dark Hint Of Things To Come. While I'm sure it's easier to make a film filled with symbolism and caricatures, a movie like The Pianist -- where the Jews are portrayed as human and the Polish are portrayed as human and, yes, even the Nazi are portrayed as human -- is infinitely more interesting, and much more enlightening than one that simply chants "Nazis bad!" for 120 minutes. Polaski recognizes that the story is powerful enough without romanticizing the victims or demonizing the, well, demons.
Adrian Brody, as Wladyslaw Szpilman, is simply marvelous, and more than earned his "Best Actor" Oscar (and his Halle Barry French kiss). And the academy chose well when opting to give Polaski "Best Director" -- he takes a simple approach to The Pianist, but it's this very unassuming style that transforms the unthinkable enormity of the Holocaust into something so intimate that every person in the audience can relate to it.
I swore I was done with Holocaust movies, but The Pianist proved me wrong. And if anything this good comes out in the future, I'll be happy to be wrong again and again.Posted on May 09, 2003 to Movies