OSCAR WEEK 2003
Adrien Brody as a Jewish pianist surviving in Nazi-occupied Warsaw
Polanski shows how music
can speak to all of us
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
In a burst of candor, Burt Reynolds once told an interviewer that among his weaknesses is a tendency to cry at the movies. I take that as a kind of license for the rest of us real men to do the same.
I have just come from a viewing in London of THE PIANIST, which is one of the most effective accounts of a tragic situation ever brought to the screen. The packed cinema in London was cluttered with Kleenex by the end. I do not bawl easily but I admit that some of it was mine.
Roman Polanski and his screenwriter Ronald Harwood devote the first half hour of the World War II era film to creating sympathy for the Szpilman family that we sense will soon be torn apart by the encroaching Germans. This is the kind of character-building that lesser directors would skim over in a few minutes on the grounds that up-front action is better boxoffice.
Instead, we are slowly lured into liking these lively, intellectual and appealing people, and we care deeply when everyone except Wladyslaw, the pianist, is rammed into a freight car and taken to a death camp. We spend the rest of the movie on an emotional roller-coaster as good Jews and bad Jews, good Germans and bad Germans, come and go, guns blazing.
American actor Adrien Brody, already rather strange-looking, was the ideal choice for this difficult role. He has said in interviews that Polanski literally starved him during the shooting to achieve a believable feeling of despair. Brodys natural sad features become heart-rending as the story progresses.
Brody also happens to be an amateur pianist, good enough for him to fake some of the playing in closeup. I watched those sharps and flats carefully as the camera took in the hands, and panned up to the face without a break. In the credits, however, it was admitted that the actual music was supplied by a Polish pianist.
Polanski handles the subtleties of this story with his old sure touch, and stands to be recognized for this brilliant achievement on Oscar night. He has five nominations. The film won the Palme dOr at Cannes and seven awards (including Best Film and Best Actor) at the Césars, the French version of the Oscars, a couple of weeks ago. In London the next night, BAFTA gave the movie Best Film and gave Polanski Best Director. Every glowing comment the critics in Europe have said about this film is true.
Sad to say, the public is pretty well numbed to scenes of brutal SS guards beating up on European Jews, especially since Schindlers List seemed to have the last word on such screen portrayals. But what Polanski brought to this film is much more than the familiar refrain.
First, it is built around a true story of the pianist Szpilman and the memories of Polanski himself in Krakow during the war. Many little details inserted in the story are based on Polanskis personal memories.
Second, Polanski has bottled up these memories for 50 years, and only now has managed to find the perfect vehicle for bringing them to the screen: Szpilmans own memoir. The fusing of the two stories has made the result add up to far more than the sum of its parts.
Numbness of another kind has made us off-hand about 19th century classical music. I have heard Chopin butchered in hotel lounges from Beijing to London. Elevators hammer him to death. Some of his tunes have been adapted by crooners and guitarists.
But Polanski was not afraid to exhume this brilliant pianistic oeuvre and make sensitive use of it to heighten the emotional impact of his story. He is careful not to flood the soundtrack with tinkling background music. The film opens with Chopin, perhaps three times during the film a familiar air is put to good use, and the final credits run over a performance of a Chopin piano concerto. Bits of a Beethoven sonata sneak in somewhere.
In the beginning of the denouement, Szpilman is discovered crouching in an abandoned, bombed-out house. The German officer, apparently a good German, although we are not yet sure, questions him alone. In the apparently sympathetic interrogation, Szpilman is still addressed as Jew this and Jew that.
A battered, dusty piano lurks in the room and Szpilman is invited to demonstrate that he is what he says he is, a pianist. An emaciated Szpilman takes his place on the piano bench, reaches out with shaking hands, and tentatively plays the opening bars of a Chopin Ballade. The harmonies and melodies of this moving piece have rarely been applied to better effect. Here Polanski reaches the emotional peak of the film. Chopin would have been proud. Within a few minutes Szpilman has found his confidence, and finishes the piece with increasing vigor. I cannot recall a scene in 50 years of moviegoing that makes classical music speak its language in a way that anyone can understand.
From this point on, we become increasingly assured of Szpilmans survival, and a post-war scene of him well-fed and well-dressed at the keyboard, playing again for Polish Radio, provides a final powerful release of tension.
Some critics have speculated that Polanski is a shameless cynic--that this film is his appeal to Hollywood to let him back in. He remains in some disgrace over a 1977 incident in which he was accused of statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, Samantha Geimer.
Now a French citizen, Polanski jumped bail and fled to Paris before being sentenced. For 25 years, Los Angeles prosecutors have considered him an outlaw, and still threaten to have him arrested if he sets foot back in the United States.
"The case remains a matter between the court and Mr. Polanski," Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles district attorney's office, said recently. "Until he surrenders, he remains a fugitive."
Now 69 years old, he could face a prison sentence of up to 50 years, clearly a ludicrous situation. Even his victim has pleaded that he be left alone. Polanski has wisely declined to risk turning up on Oscar night.
The impact of this film will outlive the Los Angeles prosecutors efforts to nab him. Audiences are leaving cinemas in a daze, emotionally clobbered.
Throughout the lengthy credits at the end, rolling past the gaffer, the best boy, the PR girl and all the rest, the audience is not moving, not talking, hardly breathing. The night I was there, no one got up till the screen finally went dark. Slowly, we shuffled outside into the rain.
©2003 by Michael Johnson. The photo is from the official website of THE PIANIST.
The "Oscar" logo and the phrase "Academy Awards" are the registered trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
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