You Know How to Whistle, Don't You?

"You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow." - Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Movie review - The Pianist

Forget the Golden Globes. Forget the Oscar favorites. The Pianist is the best picture of 2002. Roman Polanski’s film is smaller and more intimate in scope than other recent Holocaust pictures, depicting the death of one city, the destruction of one community, and the degradation of one man, the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. It is the tale of a man stripped of everything and rendered profoundly alone. This intimate focus, a brilliant, wrenching performance by Adrien Brody (The Thin Red Line, Liberty Heights) as Szpilman, and Polanski’s unsentimental and unsparing use of solitude, silence, and music combine to make a masterpiece that is universal in its themes and affect.
The Pianist opens with a debonair, serene Szpilman playing Chopin on Polish radio as the station is bombed, leaving only when blasted off his bench. In the next few scenes we see him constantly practicing and composing, irritable when his sister interrupts to share the latest news. Szpilman is already a bit of a loner, committed only to his music and his family. When circumstances force him to sell his piano for food, we see a man divorced from his identity, his isolation already begun.
The film continues like all the other Holocaust stories we know: increasing restrictions on Jewish life, the move into the ghetto, and the trains. By focusing only on what Szpilman sees and experiences, however, the audience understands why he and his family see only absurdity and difficulty when we recognize the beginning of the end. The slow process of dehumanization creeps up on all concerned. With rare exceptions, Polanski uses Szpilman as the sole point of reference for the viewers, refusing to allow his camera to get closer to the action than Szpilman can. Watching him watch others, we observe the dynamics of the ghetto, the dividing lines of class, age, and income exacerbated by hardship and fear.
One of the Jewish police pulls Szpilman out of the lines of people going to the trains, at which point the film enters much less familiar territory. Through the help of Polish friends, he hides out alone in various apartments until, near the end of the war, he is reduced to scrounging for food and water among the bombed-out buildings of Warsaw. From his hiding places, Szpilman sees the ghetto uprising and the later street battles in the city. Polanski chooses not to cut behind the ghetto walls or around blind corners, allowing Szpilman’s distance to remind the audience of their own removal from the events depicted. Like him, we will never know the full details of the camps or of the final ghetto rebellion.
In the latter half of the movie, Polanski explores the geography of solitude. Brody is nearly always alone on screen and the already spare screenplay (adapted by Ronald Harwood from Wladyslaw Szpilman’s 1945 memoir) is almost non-existent. In Szpilman we witness the transformation of a confident, elegant artist into a desperate man begging collaborators for the lives of his family, and ultimately into a wordless, scavenging scarecrow, clutching a can of pickles like a lifebelt——a figure of tragicomic absurdity. Stripped of both family and music, he lapses into silence.
In their infinite variety, Szpilman’s silences speak louder than any line of dialogue in the film. Critics have complained that Brody lacks depth, that his character is two-dimensional and does not react adequately to his experience. They’re not watching closely enough. Wladyslaw Szpilman does not discuss his reaction to the loss of his family in his memoirs, and Polanski wisely leaves that veil in place, trusting Brody to express what his character has lost through his eyes and bearing.
Adrien Brody erases himself and his character before our eyes. He acts without words, and through him, the audience learns the different textures of silence and solitude——incomprehension, pain, loneliness, cold, hunger, and exhaustion are all mirrored in his face and movements. His incredibly expressive, mobile face, and the way in which he attends to the smallest details——mumbling his lips as he grows increasingly starved and silent, vaguely practising piano fingerings——make Szpilman’s experiences powerfully present to the audience. By the end, he is almost incapable of human expression. If this is a man, he is unrecognizably foreign.
Szpilman constantly scrounges for food, warmth, and safety, but is ultimately dependent on luck, friends and strangers for all three. At the climax of the film, Szpilman is discovered by a German officer while attempting to open a can of pickles, the only food he’s seen for days. Under interrogation, Szpilman blurts out that he was a pianist. The officer leads him to a piano in the house and commands a performance. Certain that these are the last moments of his life, Szpilman is nearly devoid of thought or emotion, and yet his frozen, gnarled hands unbend and perform. As he plays Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, Op. 23 in G-minor, the piano expresses what we have never heard him say aloud—— a lament for the beauty and calm of ordinary life destroyed by chaos and evil. Though he remains expressionless, the music ripples with brilliance and passion. Under Polanski’s direction, the scene is utterly devoid of schmaltz or sentiment, but full of profound discovery. Szpilman finds that, despite everything, he is still who he once was.
The officer allows Szpilman to remain in the house, later bringing him food and supplies. (Although "the good German" seems like a deus ex machina, the actual officer Wilm Hosenfeld is known to have saved a number of others.) In his last conversation with Szpilman, the officer asks what he will do when the war ends. Szpilman responds simply that he will play the piano on Polish radio, which is exactly what he does, returning to the studio to play the same Chopin nocturne with which the film opens. Wladyslaw Szpilman continued to perform on the radio until his death at age 88, in 2000.
Unlike Spielberg, Costa-Gavras and others, Polanski never stoops to didacticism or plays upon our emotions. The film is richer for his restraint. We are asked only to watch, and find we cannot look away. For Polanski and his character, survival offers no philosophical consolations and cannot be counted as a victory. It comes at the cost of our selves, submerging our identities under the weight of the daily struggle for food and warmth. And yet somehow Szpilman makes it through, and emerges with his art intact and deepened——a bittersweet ending to 2002's most compelling film.originally published January 30, 2003.


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