Pianist, The (Germany, France, Poland, etc., 2002) ****
Directed by Roman Polanski. Written by Ronald Harwood from the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman. Photography, Pavel Edelman. Editing, Herve De Luze. Production design, Allan Starski. Music, Wojciech Kilar. Cast: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilia Fox, Michael Zebrowski, Ed Stoppard, Maureen Lipman, Frank Finlay, Jessica Kate Meyer, Julia Rayner, Ruth Platt, et al. Producers, Roman Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde. A Focus Features release. 149 minutes. R
At nearly age 70, Roman Polanski has made this stunningly good, important and heartfelt film. But I can not reveal details of "The Pianist" for reasons you will understand when you see it -which I urge all to do. My review will be short, but with some generalities about Polanski, whose name would also fit the current Polish Pope in the Vatican (in Rome).
Polanski's parents were Polish Jews who had moved to France. Roman was born in Paris. When he was 3 years-old, his family moved back to Poland. An unlucky, tragic step. Two years later, Poland was invaded by Germany. In the Holocaust, Roman's mother died in Auschwitz, his father, sent to another death camp, survived.
The very young Roman's 6th birthday was just days before WWII began. Under the Nazi rule, he matured fast, survived living by his wiles-and thanks to the kindness of strangers. His story alone would make a fascinating movie. After World War II he studied at the famed Lodz Film School. There, and after graduation, Roman impressed all cinephiles with his imaginative short films. He then went on to about 16 features --that's well under the Hollywood average--in the 40 years between 1962 and 2002. Several of those works are classics. He has worked in Poland, France, England, the U.S.A, then back to France. His Hollywood movies "Rosemary's Baby," and "Chinatown" were huge successes, as was the made-in-England, humorous "The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck." In 1969, at a gathering of Polanski friends, the Manson "family" gratuitously murdered Roman's wife, the actress Sharon Tate, an several other guests. Later, Roman became persona non grata for having had sex with a minor, and fled back to France in 1978 to avoid a U.S. prison term. He has not returned to America since then. What influences Polanski's unusual life and times exerted on his character and his movie-making would fill a book. Clearly, from his childhood days on, he has taken a dim view of humanity and suffused his works with combinations of mockery, glumness, cynicism, satire, black humor and black non-humor. Not all of his flms are great, but most are excellent, and all are original, "different," and inventive. Now briefly to "The Pianist." Its subject matter is of immense importance. The movie is faithful to pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman's autobiographical source book. He was an excellent classical musician in Warsaw, and a Jew. When the Nazis started torturing and killing Jews, the pianist found ways to survive. Later he described all this in his book. That's the basic story. It is fascinating.
The acting is terrific, starting with the American Adrien Brody (as Szpilman, the pianist) and on to everyone else from major supporting roles to small ones. The main parts are played by British performers, except for Thomas Kretschmann (the German officer) born in the now defunct German Democratic Republic from which, at age 18, he escaped to then West Germany. His role here is so special that I must keep mum about it.
All the performers looks and feel genuinely like what they are supposed to be, Polish Jews, Polish non-Jews, German soldiers, and so non. The story is gripping, the sets -- from buildings to details and paraphernalia-- look authentic. The photography, lighting, soundtrack, plus everything you can think of, are superior.
There are no cliches, no fake tugs at heart-strings, no playing up to the audience, no bravura pieces, no heroics, no falsely noble or else movie-movie stiff upper lip or courageous bits.
The most frequent comparison with another Holocaust work is Spielberg's "Schindler's List," Š but this is not valid. For one thing, it's like the apples and oranges comparison. For another, Holocaust films are, by now, a very special genre which, because of its nature, is as far from commercial as possible. Note too that a variety of reasons have contributed to making those "reality," non-fiction, documentary and para-documentary films into the only genre in which just about all the works have been superior.
"The Pianist" won the top prize (the Golden Palm) at the 2002 Cannes Festival. It has 7 Oscar nominations. Yet its public has been small in the U.S.A because audiences want entertainment above all.
Here are the other Oscar nominees for best picture, all released in December 2002, with their take at the box-office as of a few days ago: "The Lord of the Rings" $321 million, "Gangs of New York," $70 million, "Chicago" $64 million, "The Hours" $22 million, "The Pianist" $3 million. No comment.
PS. Just learned that at the British "Oscars," the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) "The Pianist" won Best Film and Roman Polanski won "Best Director." There's hope (just a ray of it) for humankind yet.