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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


Yet another in a long string of DY movie reviews that I could not possibly agree more with. I'm glad you're out there articulating the things I would articulate if I were more knowing right words... n' stuff.

This movie knocked me on my ass.

Posted by: Kevin on May 11, 2003 10:43 PM

I have been meaning to see The Pianist, but now I definitely will.

But even the unsubtle Cameron could have seen that the Titanic is a giant metaphor all on it's own.

Posted by: Laurie on May 12, 2003 7:20 AM

the real question is, has anyone seen the holocaust comedy starring robin williams? it's basically a takeoff of "life is beautiful" called "jakob the liar." robin plays a funny man stuck in a concentration camp...it looks AWFUL (no, i haven't seen it).

but to be on-topic: haven't seen "the pianist" yet, thanks to your review i'll definitely pick it up next time i'm at the video store... : )

Posted by: amy on May 12, 2003 8:10 AM

I have to disagree with the Titanic not being symbolic. Clearly in Titanic, the ship is a symbol of Cameron's career as a serious artist.

Posted by: agraham on May 12, 2003 8:12 AM

why do i keep wanting to pronounce the last post as "moe-malize"?

anyways, i always thought the titanic symolised james cameron's enormous libido and penchant for 18 year old girls...

eww. nevermind.

Posted by: Professeur Fou on May 12, 2003 10:52 AM

I don't know. I think that Titanic was autobiographical. Like the last line where whats-her-name is holding onto the leo-cicle saying "I'll never let go. I'll never let go." You can actually hear Cameron saying "of any concept until I've completely destroyed any and all good it ever held."

When does Terminator 3 come out?

Posted by: KOTWF on May 12, 2003 11:08 AM

Somehow we got from The Piantist to Terminator 3. I blame myself.

Posted by: Matthew on May 12, 2003 11:12 AM

Don't blame yourself for the deviation...we are an ADD culture...and I think that soft cheese has to be my favorite. Has anyone heard any good polka latey?

Posted by: agraham on May 12, 2003 12:02 PM

No, but if you hum a few bars...

Matthew, got any Twinkies in the shelter?

Posted by: Laurie on May 12, 2003 12:12 PM

I really like the scene where...let's go ride our bikes!!!

Posted by: KOTWF on May 12, 2003 1:37 PM

And the Terminator 3 comment made total sense to me. (I guess that doesn't say much about my logical reasoning skills, does it?). Go ahead, Matthew, you know you want to do it. Blame me.

Posted by: KOTWF on May 12, 2003 1:41 PM

Polanski got "Best Directory"? Wow. I thought that went to Active Directory this year, with LDAP getting a nomination in a supporting role.

Matthew - I think you're working too hard. Take a few days off......

Posted by: Anon. Coward on May 12, 2003 11:06 PM

i choose to blame president bush's literary stimulus package. but then again, i blame that for everything

damn africanised killer bees getting tax refunds to subsidize their killings.

Posted by: Professeur Fou on May 14, 2003 6:02 PM

Great site guys... Keep up the good work :)

Posted by: Mitch Bruke on May 12, 2004 8:36 AM