Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (Focus Features) has a classical detachment that keeps the cruelty at a distance—yet, paradoxically, heightens it. In the first scene, the title character, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), is playing a Chopin Nocturne live on Polish radio when German bombs hit the Warsaw station. It’s 1939, and the celebrated pianist is annoyed when the windows of the control room are shattered; he keeps playing after the technicians have fled, until he’s blown off his bench.
When the Nazis move into the city, Szpilman and his wealthy family are humiliated and then herded into the ghetto with the rest of the city’s Jews, but the pianist’s stature gives him a slight edge. He makes money playing in a ghetto cafe, where the Jewish beau monde behave as if nothing has changed; and he has an offer to work for the collaborationist Jewish police, which helps the Nazis keep the rest of the Jews in line. The pianist is sickened by that prospect, but when his brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard) is hauled in for likely execution, Szpilman’s appeals to the vanity of a collaborator, Itzak Heller (Roy Smiles), get Henryk sprung. And it is Heller who pulls Szpilman out of the long line for the freight train to Treblinka, where the rest of the Szpilman family will perish. Treated as something of a precious commodity, a special case, Szpilman is shuttled by a small network of artist friends from apartment to apartment while he slowly wastes away from lack of food, human contact, and music. Through windows, from a fixed and limited perspective, the pianist watches his people perish—and history go by.
The movie is grueling, for long stretches wordless, yet nothing in its nearly two-and-a-half hours feels unnecessarily prolonged. Polanski and his screenwriter, the English playwright Ronald Harwood (working from a memoir that Szpilman wrote in the late ‘40s), keep the scenes short and severe, like blackout sketches. Szpilman and his family watch from their apartment window as a wheelchair-bound old man in a building across the street is dumped off a balcony, then the rest of his family shot down and run over: The sequence, with its helplessly restricted vantage, is like a circus of horrors viewed by someone shackled to a seat. Each image seems concentrated, as if boiled down to its terrible essence. The first hour tells a grimly familiar story—of the Jews’ ignorance of what’s coming, of the accelerating brutality of the Germans, and the indifference of the majority of the Poles. The Nazis behave like sadistic ringmasters: In one scene, they pick Jews out of a crowd and make them dance like carnival animals, the very tall with the very short; they shoot them down for spectacle and for sport. Meanwhile, Polanski, who escaped from the Krakow ghetto as a small boy, shows the Jews going collectively insane—becoming delusional, preying on one another, above all standing by helplessly as people they know are slaughtered before their eyes.
The Pianist is classical in its restraint but radical in its perspective—the Holocaust viewed from an eerie, frozen side angle. Like Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976), it’s about being stuck in one’s own head and going quietly mad, only this time the external demons are real, the threat of discovery ubiquitous. Szpilman is paralyzed as he watches from the window of an apartment on the outside of the ghetto as the uprising begins and the German tanks converge on the wall—and, a month later, as the defeated Jews hurl themselves out of windows or are lined up and machine-gunned. In 1976, Lina Wertmüller made a movie called Seven Beauties that presented (with vulgar bravura) a concentration-camp survivor as the ultimate moral sellout, but that’s not what Polanski is up to here. The Pianist suggests that the instinct for survival transcends moral categories. We don’t want to judge Szpilman—and we have no right to.
This is a major performance by Adrien Brody, the son of the superb photographer Sylvia Plachy. At first the actor has a sleek, rather finicky demeanor, and he speaks in the clipped English cadences of the late Peter Cushing. (He looks a bit like Cushing, too—reedy, with the Jewish version of Cushing’s aquiline beak.) Brody has long fingers and sad, rolling eyes—the perfect hammy-pianist countenance. Later, after Szpilman spends months alone—miming his piano playing or staring out the window—Brody’s gestures become spasmodic and his mouth twisty, as if he has forgotten how to move or speak. To see this elaborately civilized man reduced to an emaciated animal state is overwhelming. And yet even then he has a kind of poetry. In later scenes, confronted by an impassive SS captain (Thomas Kretschmann), he clings forlornly to a can of food he has discovered and speaks with the hopeful credulity of a Beckett tramp.
The Pianist has a few piddling flaws. It’s hard to keep track of all the supporting characters, and the ghetto uprising sequence (viewed, like much else, from a window) goes by too fast. In an early scene, Szpilman meets a beautiful, blond, non-Jewish cellist (Emilia Fox) who adores his playing, and it’s clear the two would have had a relationship if not for the Nazi encroachment. Later, Szpilman seeks refuge with a blond singer (Ruth Platt) and her husband (Ronan Vibert), an actor; and while all non-Jewish blondes don’t look alike, from a distance these two do, and virtually everyone I know who has seen the film confuses them.
I think it’s also important to add that this great and moral movie—the best of 2002, and one of the most indelible Holocaust films ever made—is the work of a sex criminal, a man who fled this country after drugging and molesting a teenage girl in the mid-’70s. I frankly don’t know how to reconcile my feelings about The Pianist with my feelings about Polanski. What I do know is that he lost two families—with sickening brutality—in a single lifetime, and that he has been through a hell that few of us can even imagine. Perhaps returning to his native Poland for the first time in 40 years—and to the Holocaust—has given him a new moral clarity. Perhaps it is time for this magnificent artist and monstrously conflicted human being to return to the United States and make amends.