One must undeniably validate the valor and reflexivity of one of the few cinematic treatments of the Holocaust by an honest-to-god Holocaust survivor, but a good critic must also remember that bravery doesn’t inherently beget beauty. Director Roman Polanski’s troubled, torrid life aside, The Pianist – if a masterpiece – ought to withstand the test of time on its own merits, rather than on the shoulder’s of Polanski’s personal story, difficult though it may be to disentangle the two. No one film should be a sycophant to its back-story, fascinating though the behind-the-scenes realities of The Pianist may be.
For those sensing a scathing critique, well, we must remember that, odd slip-up here and there, Roman Polanski boasts one of the most enticing and exploratory canons of any currently living director. The vague rumor of conventionality lingering over The Pianist aside, he’s still a mostly unfazed formalist with an eye for chilly detachment that successfully stabs the romantic symbolism of so many Holocaust films in the back. Rather than betting on a case of the sniffles brought on by a directed, close-up viewing experience, Polanski’s casts his weight in wide frames that emphasize the death-hanging clutter of Allan Starski’s production design. They swallow the gaunt Adrien Brody amidst the barren no-man’s-land of life outside the concentration camps while reminding us how necessarily provisional and distanced the film’s, or any film’s, view of the Holocaust must be.
The story of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Brody, beautifully wielded as a lanky minimal space in the screen rather than a conventional person), a pianist separated via the wind of chance from his family, there’s audacity to spare here, as well as restraint in the way the screenplay avoids hand-wringing. Ronald Harwood’s effectively episodic script successfully enforces the existential void and anti-narrative emptiness of life in perpetual limbo. Devoid of rising and falling action, and even a sense of conventional conflict or catharsis, Harwood’s screenplay forms a base floorplan upon which Polanski can raise some of his most petrifying cinematic girders.
The Pianist is most enticing as a provocative riposte to the niceties of Schindler’s List, the decade-earlier work from a newly matured Steven Spielberg that troublingly cast its weight in with cloying symbols and stultifying metaphors as a train for the director to ride to “take me serious” Oscar glory. Tellingly, The Pianist is also about someone who survived the Holocaust – a valid but certainly not the most essential complaint labelled against Spielberg’s film. But Polanski’s version of life is beleaguered by an aimless ghostly pallor – buttressed by the nearly monochromatic cinematography from Pawel Edelman as well as the screenplay that washes away the notion of time-progression and thus the sense of linearity we humans cast our sanity lot in. Violence in the frame is a backdrop, not a focal point, with Polanski’s more open framing reminding us that it can’t focus on individual instances of violence to “capture” the essential horror of the Holocaust. The terrors of that event were too all-consuming and forbidding to be encapsulated by any one-and-done event. Or a film, no matter how many events it packs in.
Which is why Polanski, in a most trenchant gesture percolating throughout the film, rejects the Enlightenment value structure of individualist agency and volition coursing through the wide swath of Western cinema, something not evaporated in Spielberg’s vindicating humanist tale about a man who saved hundreds. Not merely a reassessment of Holocaust films but of Western cinema altogether, Polanski backs away from emphasizing Szpilman’s humanity or his virility as a survivor; Polanki’s trademark gallows humor – if you can still call it that – violates the notion of individual agency when Szpilman’s survival is perilously cast as a byproduct of chance and circumstance, rather than because of his willpower. The gesture is challenging and disturbing, but essential cinema that arrives on the coattails of a great tide of disarming, initially unapparent humanism; after all, believing that the survivors of the Holocaust faced death and won because they were more capable than the dead isn’t exactly the most thoughtful, or respectful, vision of crisis and conflict.
So value is due to The Pianist’s generally self-effacing nature, then, as well as its creeping formalist prison when even the most open of spaces provides no refuge or respite from the terror of the unknown. This said, The Pianist struggles, to a lesser extent, with a problem that would besiege another wartime survivor’s tale from a famously madcap director, Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn: value-ridden though the films may be, both suffer from the nagging suspicion that their directors ought to have been elsewhere in the cinematic world (all of David Cronenberg’s estimable post-2000 canon fits snugly in here as well).
In other words, far be it from me to decry a director like Polanski from settling into a more restrained groove late in his life, but one still pines for what a younger version of the same man might have whipped up on the same topic between the maelstrom of combustible works like Cul-de-sac, Knife in the Water, and Macbeth. Certainly, The Pianist doesn’t struggle with anonymity quite like the solidly constructed but ultimately incognito Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog directing an Oscarbait flick? Something must have been in the water). But one struggles to unearth something surreptitiously investigative smuggled underneath the ironclad but hardly revolutionary or fluxional filmmaking on display. Valid though The Pianist’s expression of quiet apocalypse may be, it never fully bats away the rising suspicions that little has been added (and a great deal has been retracted) to the notion of experience and trauma captured in many Holocaust films with their glut over the past twenty five years.