The Pianist is another Holocaust movie, and although we couldn't possibly have too many of those, we can reasonably ask whether this one brings us anything we haven't gotten from the dozens that came before it. When I first heard who the director was, I fully expected The Pianist to play the old tunes in a new key. Roman Polanski, in such movies as Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown and Death and the Maiden, has reveled in the absurdly evil things that people are capable of doing to one another. And Polanski is himself a Holocaust survivor, having fled from the Krakow ghetto at age 6. But how does one revel in the Holocaust? Polanski chose not to even try. Although watching it is an extremely wrenching experience, The Pianist is a surprisingly straightforward account of a man who, through luck and pluck, survived the Nazi death machine.
The man is Wladyslaw Szpilman, an urbane, almost dandyish musician who published a memoir called Death of a City right after the war. The city was Warsaw, and when we first meet Szpilman the Germans have just arrived. What follows is over 2Âœ hours of decrees and roundups and deportations as Warsaw's Jewish population shrinks to a fraction of its former size. And one of those still living there (if you want to call it living) after the Germans have gone is Szpilman, who watched his family being herded into a cattle car, then spent much of the war hiding out all over Warsaw. The movie's dramatic arc is intentionally crooked. Just when you think things can't get any worse, they do. Then they get even worse, then a little better, then worse again. That Szpilman survived at all seems like nothing short of a miracle.
American actor Adrien Brody plays Szpilman, and he seems to have been chosen for the fine lines of his face, the tapered delicacy of his fingers. The Pianist is about the Nazis' attempt to snuff out an entire culture, which is to say the very idea of culture itself. Early on in the movie, Brody's Szpilman seems too refined to withstand the juggernaut that's heading his way. And the rest of the movie seems to be asking just how much of his refinement, his acculturation, his humanity, he can hold on to. I found the later scenes, in which a German officer puts music over war, almost beyond belief. But apparently it happened, and that's finally what makes The Pianist a valuable addition to Holocaust cinema: It's willing to follow the truth wherever the truth leads it, no matter how absurdly evil or how absurdly banal.