Holocaust sonata

Roman Polanski’s harrowing saga of Warsaw ghetto survival.

The Pianist opens with what looks like documentary newsreel footage of Warsaw in 1939, before the ghetto walls went up and the hopes of a country on the brink went down. Then it gives way to images of Wladyslaw Szpilman playing the piano as bombs rain down around him, shattering the idyll of a world where he can make his living tinkling ivories on the radio. It’s an apt metaphor for the film, which follows Szpilman through six years of avoiding death at the hands of the Nazis by using his own hands to earn survival.

In another time, Szpilman might have traveled Europe giving concerts and receiving the unadulterated love of the upper class — but he had the misfortune to grow up just as Hitler’s grip on Germany, and later Europe, went from grasp to chokehold. The film shows the step-by-step dismantling and damning of a people, from the moment Warsaw’s Jews are forced to wear identifying armbands to the herding of half a million people into a tiny section of the city to their boarding a one-way train for Treblinka.

Szpilman is impossibly lucky, known in Warsaw by Jew and gentile alike as its most famed musician, and people of both persuasions appear at just the right time to save him from certain death. There’s no other explanation for what befalls him; Szpilman survives by his own will, yes, but also because he is known. There’s profound irony, as well as tragic sadness, in him expressing a wish to know his sister better as they walk alongside each other for the last time to waiting cattle cars. There’s knowing, and there’s knowing of, and it’s the latter that so often provides him with the means of escape and survival.

But the true importance of music in Szpilman’s life is not that he is, in the words of a friend he runs across in the ghetto, the best piano player in all Poland. It’s not that the music he creates by the simple vertical movement of his fingers and lateral movement of his wrists brings joy to a group of people whose death warrants have been signed, and not that its ability to render soft the cold heart of a German killer is his last, best chance at survival. It’s that music gives Szpilman not only a reason to live, but a will to live. When everything is gone for him and he wanders around the bombed-out shell of what was once a teeming, culturally brilliant city holding onto a can of cucumbers for dear life, gaunt, bearded, unrecognizable, it’s the music that brings him back.

Adrien Brody does everything right as Szpilman, losing the dozens of pounds required for authenticity, nimbly walking the wire between anguished madness and quiet composure during the latter stages of the movie, which are mostly spent in solitary confinement both in tiny apartments and the empty city at large. Szpilman’s belief in what is to come after the war is convincing because Brody is convincing; Brody is convincing because there’s nothing about him that says this is acting. Szpilman is simply alive. The success of The Pianist hinges on Brody’s performance, and he comes through for director Roman Polanski in spades.

Polanski has made a number of great movies, and The Pianist is not the greatest of them all; Chinatown is basically untoppable, so why bother trying? But you get the idea watching The Pianist that it might be the one closest to Polanski’s heart, the one most steeped in his personal history — his parents were sent to concentration camps; his mother died there and he survived by living with a series of Polish families. The film is full of moments that could only be created by someone who had been there, moments devoid of the trademark Spielberg mawkishness. Polanski’s presence isn’t revealed until the end credits, a smart decision, as this is a film that needs no external distractions in its opening frames.

In his various hideouts, Szpilman sits in chairs and plays air piano, the imagined sound filling his head. When faced with the question of what he will do after the war is over, he doesn’t require any thought or consideration to find an answer. I will play the piano on Polish radio, he replies, as if nothing in the world could be more natural.

As he stands in the middle of row upon row of destroyed houses so severely shelled they look like casualties of a nuclear blast, Szpilman’s simple plan seems ridiculous. How can a city rebuild from less than nothing? But Szpilman is firm. He is a pianist. He will play the piano again. It’s gotten him this far. Who are they to doubt? Who are we?


Showing exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].