A Failed Corrective

The Pianist

Coming a decade after Schindler’s List, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist seems wholly reactionary, a conscious counterpoint and correction to Spielberg’s popular and important but overly manipulative tear-jerker. For example:

  • Schindler’s List is told from the perspective of a heroic but flawed non-Jew who saved thousands from death camps, while The Pianist is the story of one basically ordinary Jew who survived by dumb luck.
  • Spielberg’s movie is expansive and open in its humanity, while Polanski’s is intimate in scope yet remote.
  • Schindler’s List plays on the audience’s emotions, sending an engraved invitation for your tears, while The Pianist works hard at being chilly, to the point that the audience might be numbed to events that should be heartbreaking and horrifying.

That’s certainly the effect The Pianist had on me. I’m all for movies that underplay things — not relying on swelling music to cue an emotional reaction — but The Pianist is downright inert. It’s extremely well-made, but it didn’t have any effect on me. Its dispassion is complete and awkward, like sentences with passive construction: “There are characters. There are things that happen to them. There is an ending.”

Based on the memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, Polanski’s movie tells the story of a young pianist (Adrien Brody) whose family gets carted off to a Nazi death camp. He escapes that fate but still serves as a witness to the Holocaust in his Polish ghetto. He survives seemingly unscathed physically or emotionally.

Polanski has an obvious investment in The Pianist’s subject — his family, like Szpilman’s, was taken to a concentration camp, and his childhood war experience eerily mirrors that of the main character — but he keeps the film’s horror at a strange distance.

It almost seems that he wanted to make a documentary about Szpilman — not an “essay” film with a point or argument, or a narrative movie with a compelling story and characters, but a simple re-telling of his ordeal, offered without comment. He appears to intend the movie as an artifact, a re-creation of history as clinical, dry, and accurate as a chapter in a textbook.

That’s not to say that The Pianist is artless. It features astounding production design, strong performances, and steady direction.

But it’s ultimately unsatisfying, taking its cue from its impassive protagonist and never providing emotional insight into the effect on Szpilman of what he sees.

What sinks the film in the end is that the pianist emerges from the Holocaust and his own ordeal whole, or very nearly so. He gives two musical performances near the end of the movie, one to a German officer despite being frozen and excruciatingly hungry, and the other in a radio studio after the war is over. With the German officer and at several other points in the movie, The Pianist suggests that Szpilman’s love of music and instrument sustained him. The performance that closes the movie is rapturous, as if the only change to Szpilman’s character from all he’s been through and witnessed is that he appreciates music a little bit more.

This implication appalls me. The Pianist ends not with an appropriate and expected mix of hope and grief but on a note that’s willfully blind and emotionally dead. It’s very nearly repellent.

Polanksi’s film certainly works as a balance to Schindler’s List, but it goes too far and never finds its humanity. For all the flaws of Spielberg’s movie — the mawkish moments, the wince-inducing “I could have done more” speech, the girl in the pink dress — it is a work of evident passion and love, and that makes up for a lot.

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