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A comfy screening room is a far cry from Dante's Hell, but the same sign over the door applies: Leave all your hopes ye who enter. Well, I had hopes for this movie. Roman Polanski may not be an auteur, but he is sure a high-caliber filmmaker, whether when putting the Devil in the Dakota or… "It's Chinatown, Jake." His career as a film director in his second exile -- to Paris -- has somewhat withered: Frantic was merely adequate, and how many actually went to see The Ninth Gate?

The Pianist promised a lot. First, there's Polanski's biography: he says he "survived the bombing of Warsaw and the Krakow ghetto." Fellini and Bergman each took their middle-class childhoods and parlayed them into masterpieces. Now, take Polanski's far more traumatic childhood experience and multiply it by his considerable film skills. Plus this is the first film in 40 years that he shot in Poland -- a return to one's linguistic and cultural roots should count for something. Plus this was his first Hollywood-sized budget in a long time. The plusses snowball -- how could he miss?

The Pianist is based on a memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish concert pianist who survived the Holocaust by hiding out in Warsaw. (His last name alone suggests a certain amount of blessedness -- a "playing man" in Yiddish.) The film opens as the Germans are about to march into Poland and follows the Szpilman family on their, alas, only too well-known route from initial small humiliations to the ghetto deprivation and finally aboard the Auschwitz-bound train. That's the first act.

However unfair it is to invoke Schindler's List, how can one avoid it? For better (the bulk of the film) or worse (the closing), Spielberg's film is the gold standard to judge all Holocaust (feature) films. Still, the sheer scale of the Shoah lends itself to an infinite number of interpretations, and you expect Polanski to map his own route through the tragedy. Amazingly, he doesn't. Yes, the film looks stunning from the first frame to the last, opening in bright fall colors and gradually becoming monochromatic (thanks to Allen Starski, the same production designer as on Schindler). Polanski builds superb, complicated shots and crowd scenes, and some of his discoveries are striking -- for example, a bored SS guard forces the emaciated, crippled, and elderly ghetto Jews to dance. The emotional sadism of the scene makes it almost too painful to watch -- but such finds are few and far between, and for the most part the narrative runs on the familiar track. Yet Spielberg managed to pack more immediate pain and despair into a 30-second diamond-swallowing scene than Polanski into his sitcom-y family debate over where they should hide their 5,003 zlotys. For an insight into the ghetto shadow economy, Schindler gives us a 30-second black-market scene in the church; Polanski goes on interminably on class stratification, throwing in Socialist comments (perhaps for his French audience) and dwelling on the cruelty of Jewish police against Jews -- a well-known historical fact that, presented in passing, seems gratuitous. And then we have interminable haphazard murders by point-blank shots to the head. Is it really Polanski's intention to get us inured to death in this fashion? I doubt it.

Amid this banality (in cinematic terms), an important aspect of the story gets ignored. Le maitre can assert what he wants from his intellectual Parisian perch, but his best work was done in Hollywood, and his film-making and storytelling instincts are pure Hollywood, too -- so why this defiance of Hollywood Rule No.1: We Should Care about the Hero? To a fault, the Szpilmans are a loving, cultured family who cringe at the thought of selling their Bechstein grand piano, but we expect that (not too many handymen in Holocaust epics). Most importantly, it is Wladyslaw himself. Adrien Brody looks picture-perfect: his gaunt face shines with intelligence and sensitivity, crowned by a nose that, well … he's Jewish, all right. But we never get a clue about what hides behind his all-too-aloof façade. Hence when, for the reasons we can only speculate about, the ghetto police separate him by force from his family, in effect saving his life, and he is left alone to survive, he is still a cipher to us.

One could argue that Wladyslaw's aloofness is actually an expression of his dignity. That would make him more Polish-than-thou: this is a culture where honor has always played a major role. (A classic American war image is Iwo Jima; Polish, the hopeless cavalry attack against German tanks.) Initially, Wladyslaw refuses to beg to be admitted into a no-Jews-allowed café, and he insists on wearing a tie, but then the life in the ghetto keeps pummeling his pride: he has to wear a Jewish-star armband; he is ordered to pause his playing in the restaurant so that the money-traders could test their coins' authenticity (or so I interpreted this scene); finally, he tries to save a child's life and is forced to simply leave the body lying on the street. But there's a curious stylistic disconnect: it is as if Polanski fears we will miss Wladyslaw's stiff upper lip, and so his depiction of inhumanity grows successively more naturalistic, down to the close-up of a man licking kasha from the muddy cobblestones. If his lead character is so subtle, does he need to hit us on the head with it? If Wladyslaw says to his sister, seconds before they are separated, "I wish I knew you better", this seems like a half-hearted slapped-on attempt to inject humanity into the character.

Separated from his family, Wladyslaw falls in with a handful of Jews left behind. They are doing backbreaking construction work and arming themselves for their last stand, and he does his bit in smuggling guns into the ghetto. But then he can't take it any more, so he leaves to place himself at the kindness of the Poles outside, in fact choosing to feed off his past celebrity. (A crooked member of his friends' network solicits funds around town -- and absconds with a "tidy sum" of money.) Obviously, moral indignity is preferable to physical one. He watches the Jewish revolt from the window of his hideaway with the same unchanged melancholic expression. Bravery is foolish, his stance says; survival is more important.

As the Soviets approach, the second revolt -- the Polish one -- breaks out (such historical minutiae might present a problem to American audiences), and his support network falls apart. Now Szpilman is forced to become a city rat, dodging German fire in the picturesque ruins, crawling around dead bodies and pretending to be one, and scavenging for food and water -- but it will never occur to him even to grab a gun from a corpse (perhaps it did not occur to Polanski, either -- otherwise, I'm sure we would have a closeup of a gun). The most active thing he can do for his survival is to look for a can opener. In this hapless quest he runs into a German officer… Well, you know the ending: dead men don't write memoirs.

Although technically a French-Polish production, make no mistake: this is a big-budget Hollywood picture, teeming with special effects. There are no high-speed car chases, but the slamming of howitzer shells into building walls and Szpilman's teetering on the edge of the roof are pure Hollywood. And in Hollywood you can't make a 168-minute epic, on a subject so fraught with history, without trying to suggest to the viewer what it all means. We already know that Jews were cultured and refined and Germans were sadistic homicidal bullies -- and if at the end one saves Szpilman's life, that's a weak stab at Hollywood-style balance-keeping. Especially since the Good German says, "Don't thank me. Thank God," etc.

Polanski's moral here is not subtle and will turn off many people. Szpilman may be a proud Polish Jew whose honor is eroded and destroyed, but, more importantly, he is The Pianist -- The Artist -- and as such, deserves to survive. Polanski starts off subtly -- is Wladyslaw's talent / celebrity that prompt the Jewish cops to save him? -- but then he bulldozes this point home: all memories of Szpilman's loving family are erased five minutes after they're gone -- out of sight, out of mind. An artist's true family are his muses, right? Szpilman's most emotional moment occurs when he is left alone with a piano that he is forbidden to play for safety reasons. And when the Good German orders him to play to prove his credentials, Polanski sends in his own tanks: a beam of light descends through a broken window to illuminate the gaunt figure facing the keys. Sure enough, after physical deprivation and two years without practice, Szpilman doesn't even bother warming or crackling his fingers: Chopin's Nocturne comes out as perfect as if he were still in the recording studio. Genius shall prevail, Polanski seems to say. More unpleasantly, the film suggests that, perhaps, piano-playing as a survival skill (allowing one to rely on the goodness of friendly Poles and music-loving German officers) is preferable to target-shooting. Whether this was Polanski's intention or not, this reading helps explain the Grand Prix at Cannes; it dovetails nicely with the French views of how the Jews should behave.

Mr. Polanski may counter the above by saying that his hero is in effect an antihero. Yes, it can be argued that if a character like Szpilman -- an artiste too weak and arrogant to fend for himself -- survives the tragedy that others, more purposeful and courageous, did not, this underscores both the tragedy itself and the arbitrary nature of survival. It's a valid concept, but the road to Movie Hell is paved with valid concepts that failed to connect with audiences. Still, any film that at least attempts to show something different, to take us away from the accepted notions and stoke up a debate, is to be welcomed -- even if it doesn't quite measure up to our expectations. Polanski did his best, and if I expected more -- is it his fault?

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Focus Features
Movie Web site: The Pianist



Photo credits: © 2002 Focus Features. All rights reserved.