Thursday, June 4, 2015

Best of the 2000s: The Pianist

4.5 Stars

The Pianist is an adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiography of the same name. Even as I write this review, I can’t actually decide if I think the film is brilliant or a misfire. I think it might be radically both.

The Pianist opens with Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor for a polish radio station. Nazi Germany bombs the station, and Szpilman refuses to leave the piano bench until he’s finished the piece. As everyone flees the station he runs into a friend, and meets the friend's sister. As the bombs fall, Szpilman chases the girl beginning a brief and doomed romance. As imagined by Brody and director Roman Polanksi, this is a trait that will define Szpilman. He seems oddly un-phased and unreactive to the Nazi invasion for large portions of the beginning of the film, cracking wise about the government of occupied Poland’s official decree banning Jews from the park.

This strange use of comedy is a defining feature of the film. Polanski uses the grammar of comedy films to deliver deeply tragic information from real life history – for instance Polanski cuts from the Szpilmans vehemently objecting to wearing arm bands marking them as Jewish to the family patriarch walking down the street with an armband prominently displayed. The film has set up the joke, but history has denied the punchline.

The rest of the film concerns Szpilman’s survival against all odds, fueled by coincidental meetings with old friends who aide and hide him until the Soviets liberate Poland. These passages while tragic, continue to evoke comedy in a strange way. In fact, the work The Pianist most resembles in many respects in Candide, by Voltaire (or maybe Samuel Beckett's entire collected works) which also used comedy to skewer the frightening madness and horrors that history could set upon its protagonist.

I have reservations about using this manner of story telling to tell this story, but I yield to Roman Polanski’s (Academy Award winning) vision – especially in light of the fact that the story of Szpilman is so closely connected to his own experience. The film is perfect from a production, sound, and set design. To watch it, is to see war torn Poland. The Pianist also features a fantastic (and Academy Award winning) performance.

So, if I have yielded my reservations about Polanski’s use of the grammar of film comedy to tell this story, why 4.5 stars and not 5?

The Pianist steps wrong by consistently linking the love of art with morality. Szpilman is certain that a certain non-Jewish person will help him because “she’s a singer; her husband’s an actor. They’re good people.” (Szpilman says this line multiple times). Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), a German officer who helps Szpilman, bonds with Szpilman because he also loves the work of the Polish composer Chopin. Even the Jewish violinist who yells abuse at the captured Nazis at the end of the film gets to prove that he is a great person because he comes to regret his cruelty (hardly a cruelty worth mentioning given the actions of Nazi Germany). The history of the world teaches us that love of art does not in any way equate to moral decency. Hitler loved art. Mao was a poet. John Wilkes Booth was a great actor. Hell, we don’t need to go that far. Roman Polanski loves and creates great art; he’s hardly the poster child for moral decency. This theme is false, and it is so woven into the heart of this film that it corrupts it – robbing The Pianist of the chance to be the classic of modern cinema that it could have been.

The Pianist finds itself on this list because it was selected as the best film of the 2000s by Ty Burr of the The Boston Globe. It was also selected as one of the 10 best films of the decade by one other member of the esteemed panel of experts.

From Out in the Void,


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