- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

Only a handful of Warsaw's Jews survived World War II, one-third of a prewar population of about 360,000. One of the survivors was the classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who died in 2000 at age 88. He was 27 and a well-known performer when the German invasion began in September 1939. Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," a movie version of Mr. Szpilman's postwar memoirs, begins with a re-enactment of the bombardment that disrupted one of Mr. Szpilman's popular radio performances of Chopin.
In a sense, the continuity comes full circle because Mr. Szpilman was able to resume that performance in a broadcast after the Germans abandoned Warsaw in January 1945. However, an enormous burden of personal, social and historical loss had accumulated by that time, including the deaths of the other members of Mr. Szpilman's immediate family his parents, a brother and two sisters, all transported to the death camps of Treblinka in the summer of 1942.
Mr. Szpilman himself was spared by a fluke on that fateful day: A Jewish police constable participating in the roundup took it on himself to order the former celebrity and national treasure to flee. Mr. Szpilman spent the rest of the war in hiding, sustained by friends or acquaintances in the Resistance or the gentile population. At one point, there's a sardonic observation that keeping him alive has been good for donations.
Mr. Polanski was challenged by a daunting, primal kind of experience, one that in some respects matched his own survival saga as a fugitive Jewish child from Warsaw during the same period. Unfortunately, it has been a while since he has demonstrated much staying power as a film director obliged to sustain a near-epic running time. His last distinguished ordeal was "Tess" in 1980.
"The Pianist" isn't built for a long haul, but it acquires considerable distinction while reproducing parts of an astonishing and sorrowful survival story.
The first 90 minutes or so seem as gripping and distinctive as the ominous scenarios of "Schindler's List" and "The Grey Zone," but the depiction begins to lose intensity once the protagonist, portrayed by Adrien Brody, becomes a more or less solitary figure, with few resources of his own.
It seems curious that we're not even permitted to share the music or thoughts that might occupy his mind during these desperately isolated periods, if only to prevent the solitude and privation from degenerating into suicidal despair. One suspects that Mr. Szpilman must have begun writing memoirs in his head well before the war ended and encouraged their prompt publication. A soundtrack that shared some of that mental activity, even in fragmentary or discordant ways, might have been a blessing in the final hour.
One of the compelling aspects of the earlier episodes is the entire Szpilman family, which makes a decided impression. The contrasts give the filmmaker far more latitude than he has with Mr. Brody as a lone wolf.
For example, the degradation that accompanies a Nazi conquest is expressed first through Frank Finlay as the father, accosted on the street by a young German officer who berates him for failing to bow and then orders him to walk home in the gutter because sidewalks are no longer open for Jewish pedestrians. Another sort of aberration is evident in the father's own complaint about American Jews: He can't understand why the American banking class in particular isn't doing more to pressure the U.S. government to declare war against Germany.
On the face of things, the younger brother, Henryk, played by Ed Stoppard, seems a more stirring and rebellious presence than Mr. Brody's Vladek, an elegant aesthete whose survival skills never look adequate to the crisis. At any rate, one grows attached to all of them: Mr. Finlay, Mr. Stoppard, Maureen Lipman as the mother, Jessica Kaye Meyer and Julia Rayner as the sisters. It's a genuinely felt loss when they vanish at the rail terminal, never to return.
Indeed, you're a little shocked that Mr. Polanski neglects to account for their fates in the epilogue notes he has appended to update the histories of both Mr. Szpilman and the German officer, Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), who sheltered Mr. Szpilman in the last weeks of the occupation. These aren't the only characters who merit a formal epitaph.
In the process of emptying out Mr. Szpilman's life in a social sense, the movie grows torpid and never quite recovers in time to take stock once the war is over. Mr. Brody himself cannot carry the weight of solitary interludes on his thinning physique or stricken, brooding face. You have plenty of time to wonder why he isn't perhaps more of a participant and less of a spectator when active resistance is afoot.
A generous interpretation is that he becomes a kind of walking dead man after an encounter with a German officer who whips him in fury at a building site where Mr. Szpilman is employed for a time as a bricklayer. No physical humiliation depicted in the movie is stronger than the image of Mr. Brody groveling in the mud at the feet of this enraged tormentor. Nevertheless, we do see Mr. Szpilman actively participating in the hiding of weapons a short time later. As a rule, he seeks out people who can help him and struggles to adapt himself to harsh conditions.
The kind of isolation that results when he's cooped up in an apartment across from a German dormitory and hospital becomes more a menace to storytelling than to the character's survival. Mr. Szpilman is a witness to the start of the Warsaw uprising from this place of hiding. He's compelled to vacate because his own side of the street becomes a target for German tank crews.
At this climactic juncture, Mr. Polanski appears to be evoking a surreal impression of one small man in the path of a war machine and recalling indelible images from a great Polish film of two generations ago, Andrzej Munk's "Eroica."
The affinities are garbled. Mr. Munk had a picaresque plot and a captivity plot effectively separated. Mr. Polanski makes it difficult to comprehend the duration that begins with the collapse of the uprising and concludes with Mr. Szpilman's refuge inside the ruins of a suburban neighborhood, where he encounters the kindness of a German resigned to defeat.
I'm not sure if the problem is a lack of connecting episodes or the inability to perfect Adrien Brody as a spellbinding figure of solitude. Whatever the deficiency, the movie feels exhausted well before its footage reaches a fade-out.

TITLE: "The Pianist"
RATING: R (Graphic depictions of violence, anti-Semitism and suffering in a World War II setting)
CREDITS: Directed by Roman Polanski. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the memoir "Death of a City" by Wladyslaw Szpilman.
RUNNING TIME: 148 minutes

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide