June 2003 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Gary S. Dalkin
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Film and DVD Review

The Pianist  
directed by Roman Polanski

The Pianist is released on DVD in the UK on 18th August 2003, and can be pre-ordered from Amazon UK  
It can be obtained now from Amazon France or from Amazon US

the pianist

Roman Polanski’s finest film for decades swept the top film awards for 2003 – amongst them Best Film at the National Society of Film Critics in the United States, the Palme D’Or at Cannes, the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards. It is certainly a film of considerable artistic merit, empowered as it is by Polanski’s vivid direction, a sort of conscious dissemination in celluloid of his own wartime memories, ones he has largely refused to talk or write about until now, and by Adrien Brody’s stunning portrayal of the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a performance a world apart from his last major role as a spike-haired punk in Spike Lee’s corrosive Summer of Sam.

Based on Szpilman’s own memoirs published in Warsaw in 1946 – and, therefore, along with Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, one of the most contemporaneous accounts of the German occupation of Europe – the film is a sparing indictment of one individual’s story of survival. The book is a harrowing masterpiece of almost unbearably restrained honesty, so much so that Szpilman never looked at it again; it is an interpretative emotion which Polanski sees fit to partly remove from his own vision of the Ghetto where the honesty is anything but restrained. Polanski’s vision is simply searing in its white-heat anger.

Whilst Szpilman’s account of the Ghetto is intensely autobiographical, almost telescopic, and necessarily limited in what it can describe, Polanski’s interpretation of events is more panoramic and more bitterly devised. Thus, as the Ghetto is being built like a citadel within the walls of Warsaw Polanski inflicts on the viewer a picture of German brutality Szpilman can only have been a part witness to (just as the younger Polanski also was). A Jew complains that it is cold so he is made to dance by a German soldier, for example. There are countless executions, for so meaningless a reason and so randomly undertaken, as to make Spzilman’s own survival all the more incredible. In another scene, from within the Ghetto, Szpilman’s family are witnesses to a raid on a flat opposite where a wheelchair-bound man is thrown from the balcony onto the street below. Yet, Polanski also focuses on the meanspiritedness within the Ghetto; a woman is robbed of her gruel by another Jew, only for it to spill onto the filthy cobbled street, where it is hastily eaten as the woman dissolves into tears and hysterics. Indeed, in the documentary on the DVD Polanski explicitly states that there were good and bad Jews and Poles – and his film doesn’t flinch from portraying that (and conversely, it doesn’t flinch in arguing that there were good and bad Germans).

The film is neatly circular in the sense that it begins and ends in the same place, and with the same music. It was on September 23rd 1939 that Szpilman was playing for Warsaw Radio Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp minor when German shelling interrupted the broadcast; six years later, he opened his first post-war broadcast with the same piece. Music – which Polanski uses so effectively to bridge the gap between barbarity and a nether-world civilization partly suspended – proves yet one more reason why Szpilman survived his incarceration in Warsaw when so many died.

He is at first rescued from the Treblinka death train by a Jewish policeman simply because of his fame as a pianist, and he is later fed by the producer at the radio station through generous donations given to secure Szpilman’s confinement in safe houses throughout the city (although Polanski’s suggestion is that Szpilman was allowed to contract jaundice through neglect). Hearing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata being played in the house in which he finally seeks refuge in the most war-torn part of Warsaw he leaves his attic to be confronted by a German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, beautifully played by Thomas Kretschmann. Hosenfeld proves Szpilman’s last saviour after Szpilman has played Chopin for him (although the suspension of disbelief is palpable in that both a piano in a decayed building should play so ‘in tune’ and that with frost-bitten hands he should play the piece so perfectly). He subsequently brings him food and blankets and gives him a German top-coat – which when the Russians reach Warsaw almost costs Szpilman his life because he is assumed to be German.

Polanski brings a couple of beautiful musical touches to his characterisation of Szpilman. The second flat in which Szpilman must spend his solitary captivity houses a piano, yet all he can do is hover his fingers above the keyboard. When asked by Hosenfeld what he does Szpilman replies "I am a pianist…I was a pianist." When asked to play for him, the playing is at first tentative but then becomes incendiary as if Szpilman is rediscovering his art.

The Pianist will naturally evoke comparison with Spielberg’s epic Schindler’s List, a film which Spielberg had asked Polanski to direct for him (he refused). They are very different films – not least because it would be a mistake to call The Pianist, as some critics have, a ‘Holocaust film’. The Holocaust in this film is very much implied with no exterior or interior shots of any concentration camps until the very final scenes where it is not the Jews who are incarcerated but the Germans, among them Szpilman’s final saviour, Hosenfeld. Moreover, Polanski’s film is almost unique in the genre by giving us a highly individual view of a universal event. When Szpilman’s family are deported to Treblinka the very last we see of them is when they are forced onto the train in Warsaw – although Polanski makes us aware through nothing other than the tension of the scene that their fate is never in question. That we are also a part of Szpilman’s own escape from fate, and their inevitable death, gives Polanski’s film a parallel sense of epic stature and intimacy, something lacking in Spielberg’s tour de force.

Notably, it is the music that sets these films poles apart. John William’s worthy, and Oscar-winning, score for Schindler’s List bears all the hallmarks of an innate Jewishness, as much an emblem of the film’s action as the action itself; in contrast, Wojciech Kilar’s understated score, with its Bergian, almost brittle tonality (and so often recalling the string quartet rather than an overt orchestration) makes the horror of Polanski’s vision all the more powerful. It is that very understatement which makes Polanski’s film all the more difficult to watch, and so uncompromising.

The DVD contains a noteworthy 40 minute making of documentary in which Polanski speaks frankly about the film and his own memories. Small gems – such as Polanski himself being ‘rescued’ from the death trains - came to form a part of the film’s narrative. Thus, when Szpilman is saved by the Jewish guard he is told ‘Don’t run’ – as Polanski had been told to do. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood originally wrote ‘run’ but came to believe that Polanski’s own memory of the event was so accurate that it had a universal truth about it. Similarly, people being shot against a wall form less Szpilman’s memory of events and more Polanski’s. When Szpilman’s father is slapped across the face in the street by a Nazi officer, it is actually a memory of Polanski’s own father having had that done to him that we are seeing, as is the humiliation of him being made to walk in the gutter rather than on the pavement.

Brody himself talks in depth about his own preparation for the role – having to learn to play Chopin (although he already played the piano) and feeling that he had to live the part of Szpilman. That involved him depriving himself of family and friends, selling his flat and car and so on.

The acting is, in fact, uniformly excellent with the Oscar-winning Brody giving us a performance of the highest quality. Physically, his transformation from a healthy, pre-War pianist to a ravaged human being scavenging amongst the iced ruins is masterfully done. Stalwarts of the British screen Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman play the Szpilman parents with compassion and understanding.

The DVD itself is of the highest quality. In a fresh anamorphic, widescreen print with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound it sounds (and looks) as good as it should. Colours are pristine – almost shockingly so at times.

But it is Polanski’s part dispassionate, part fiery direction which leaves the greatest impression. The sense this is such a personal journey – as was Spielberg’s – gives the film a stark, dual intimacy. It would be very hard to think of a finer piece of cinema this director has done.

Marc Bridle

Film ****(*) 41/2
DVD **** 4

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