The young Roman Polanski spent World War II hiding from the Nazis in Poland, but coming from a child of the Holocaust, “The Pianist” plays as a remarkably conventional film. To be sure, it’s a solid, respectable work, one that will interest a sizeable number of viewers internationally due to both the subject matter and the man who made it. Still, this sober account of a talented Jewish musician who managed to survive in Warsaw throughout five years of German occupation surprisingly lacks a feeling of personal urgency and insight that would have made it a distinctive, even unique contribution to the considerable number of films that deal with the war in general and Holocaust in particular. As happened with Polanski’s “Tess” 23 years ago, there is the possibility that a motivated distributor could muscle the picture far enough into prestige territory — where the film has had the good fortune to begin its public life thanks to its Palme d’Or in Cannes — to make Polanski’s “comeback” a decent B.O. attraction.
Not wanting to make a strictly autobiographical picture about his boyhood traumas and adventures, Polanski long searched for the proper vehicle with which to merge his own memories of the rape of Poland.
He found it in “The Pianist,” a survival memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, who was a well-known composer and musician for Polish radio before the war and not quite 30 when the Nazis invaded in 1939. Szpilman wrote his book in 1945, and it was published the following year as “Death of a City,” but the tome was soon banned by the communist authorities for showing that there were good and bad people alike among the Poles and Jews and even the Germans, one of whom had helped Szpilman avoid detection at a crucial late stage of the war.
Under its new title, the book was finally republished to great success in 1998, two years before the author’s death.
Szpilman’s book is notable for its unstressed, dispassionate description of horrific events, and the approach of Polanski and writer Ronald Harwood (“The Dresser”) is similarly watchful and unmelodramatic — to the point, however, of draining most of the tension and emotion out of the story’s many precarious situations. The film has its moments of bleak power, but only occasionally are the incidents of man’s inhumanity to man shocking, unfamiliar or dramatically fresh.
First-hand aspect is felt at the outset, as Wladyslaw (Adrien Brody) is in the middle of a radio piano performance when a blast from a German bomb explodes through the studio. Like everyone else in Warsaw, the Szpilmans know what’s coming, but they are convinced that everything will be fine once England and France declare war on Hitler. The upper-class family, which includes Wladyslaw’s father (Frank Finlay), mother (Maureen Lipman), brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard) and sisters Halina (Jessica Kate Meyer) and Regina (Julia Rayner), has a well-appointed apartment and beautiful clothes, and the basic attitude toward the incipient hostilities is one of agitation and concern, not panic and despair.
One of the areas in which the film’s understatement proves most effective is in positioning Wladyslaw as a man of privilege who innately believes that he can handle any situation, that he can somehow finesse the rules that apply to everyone else. Even when the Nazi vise closes in on Warsaw’s 360,000 Jews — first requiring that they wear identifying armbands, then forcing them to move out of their homes and into a ghetto that is soon walled up, then making them subject to arbitrary arrest and execution — Wladyslaw maintains an image of himself that sets him apart, as he continues to play piano in a Jewish-only restaurant, obtains a valued employment certificate for his father and reassuringly tells his family, “It won’t last long, don’t worry.”
Polanski reveals interesting aspects of everyday life under the first couple of years of occupation, such as how the Jews were forced to move from one part of the ghetto to another at special crossing points, how rumors of outside events spread, and how the special Jewish police force did the Nazis’ bidding in many routine matters. But the early going is marred by too much dialogue that’s peppered with what sound like news bulletins, expository information that might have been worked more gracefully into the narrative thread. Further irritants are the stiff and unpersuasive acting by some of the thesps, notably those playing Wladyslaw’s mother and brother, and the haughty British accents affected by the cast in general.
In August 1942 Wladyslaw’s family is among those rounded up for “deportation,” although no one knows exactly what this means. As his parents and siblings are crammed into a freight car, Wladyslaw is abruptly pulled out of the doomed crowd by an acquaintance in the Jewish police and placed in a work detail; one striking scene has the small group entering Warsaw proper, where life for non-Jews is shown to be proceeding, superficially at least, in a relatively “normal” fashion.
Story’s second half is devoted to Wladyslaw’s life on his own in Warsaw. A friend helps him hide, and for a long time he lays low in a nice flat from which he is able to witness the uprising in the ghetto in April 1943. As the Germans’ situation deteriorates over the course of the next year, so, coincidentally, does Wladyslaw’s condition; starving, filthy, no doubt diseased and highly conspicuous with a beard and long hair, he scuttles from place to place trying to avoid being seen.
Finally, with Warsaw all but entirely destroyed by the retreating Germans, Wladyslaw is found in an abandoned house by a German captain (Thomas Kretschmann) who, upon learning what the trapped man did for a living, asks him to play the piano and later returns with food and the information that the Russians will be arriving soon.
The physical reproduction of a vanished Warsaw has been impressively managed by production designer Allan Starski via a combination of street sets built at the Babelsberg Studios near Berlin and surviving old suburbs of Warsaw; pic marks the first time Polanski has shot in his native land in 40 years. The generally gray and pastel backdrops are inflected by few bright colors in Pawel Edelman’s cinematography, and Wojciech Kilar’s effective score is overshadowed on the soundtrack by the classical music pieces, especially those of Chopin, that speak to Wladyslaw’s profession as well as to the culture that is being suppressed, if not obliterated.
Quietly watching what’s going on, acting decisively when need be, obviously horrified by his family’s fate but never losing his grip, Wladyslaw is mostly a reactive character, and Brody gives an admirably restrained reading of the man. He’s able to convey what’s important mostly with his eyes, which seem to assume a naturally sad, wistful look in repose.
But some major elements are missing from the film, factors that might have given it something more than its disappointingly modest impact. One is a strong sense of Wladyslaw’s scheming, calculating side, a picture of his special, if inadvertent talents that made him one of the very small number of Jews to last through the entire war in Warsaw. Another is emotion.
Polanski smartly avoids the easy melodrama that could have been generated by Wladyslaw’s separation from his family, and he avoids sentimentality just as he has always done. But one imagines that, were the film fully realized, a huge outpouring of subconscious emotion would have surged to the surface when Wladyslaw finally — stumblingly at first, but then wonderfully –plays the piano again for the first time in years. In fact, one feels very little throughout the entire picture, which is actually quite an accomplishment given the extraordinary nature of the story.