The Hunger Artist
With His Artful, Unsentimental Story of Survival in Nazi-occupied Poland, Roman Polanski Makes an Apt Comeback
The Pianist begins with a bang, to say the least. Performing live on the air in a Warsaw radio studio in 1939, young Jewish piano virtuoso Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is soon accompanied by the distant crump of explosions. The engineer on the other side of the glass motions for him to stop, but Szpilman--thin and elegant as a lily, tailored, slightly imperious--shakes him off and continues with Chopin for a few more bars until World War II brings the recital to an abrupt and violent halt in a shower of glass.
The whole sequence takes hardly as much time to play out as it takes to read that paragraph, but it provides the perfect overture for the harrowing and powerful two-hours-plus that follow. In every single successive scene, despite his will and wishes, despite his mastery and intellectual urbanity, Szpilman is further degraded, brutalized, and stripped of another tatter of his humanity by the Nazi occupation of Poland. This is not one of those feel-good, triumph-of-the-human-spirit movies, though it represents an ironic triumph for its director. Casting off decades of logy filmmaking, Roman Polanski tells Szpilman's tale with artful but unsentimental efficiency, making The Pianist simultaneously hard to watch and nearly impossible not to.
If this were another kind of film, it would be appropriate to applaud the frenetic pace Polanski sets during the film's first hour. Unfortunately, he is chronicling the fate of the Jewish population of Warsaw, which makes The Pianist's initial headlong progress no less compelling. The camera follows Szpilman home from the studio to his large and cultured family, which frets and argues over how to deal with the German incursion. The pacing means that Brody only has a few minutes and a few pages of dialog in which to give a sense of what the pre-war Szpilman is like; cocky, bordering on smug, he is nonplussed, even defiant, in the face of the invasion and manages the composure to flirt during a bombardment. But within a handful of scenes, he has nowhere to go on his date (Jews are banned from cafés) and his unbelieving family is destitute and subject to random humiliation on the street. It all might seem rushed if Polanski didn't continue to pile on one indelible, inevitable scene after another, until the Szpilmans are casually stepping over dead bodies lying on the sidewalk behind the walls in the Warsaw Jewish ghetto.
Szpilman's talent is a blessing as he is able to work as a pianist in a café, and his renown helps him get his family out of a few tight spots. But the thing that separates him from others becomes a kind of curse, severing him from his family and leaving him to face the last days of the ghetto alone. Even when he wants to fight back as the Germans encroach, those who know his reputation as an artist prevent him from doing so. And so the sensitive artist winds up passively watching his hometown crumble while he slowly deteriorates along with it.
This is the Jewish experience during World War II as it has never been seen on film before. By escaping the trains to the concentration camps, Szpilman becomes subject to a new sort of terror, and Polanski slows the pace to make the most of quiet dread. Hidden away in a series of apartments by sympathetic Poles, Szpilman must remain silent to avoid detection and rely on his benefactors for his every need. When he is cooped up with a piano, say, or when his minder fails to show up with food for weeks, the unbearable life-and-death tension of every ticking moment until the Allies arrive is palpable.
Brody, who is in virtually every scene, does a marvelous job of understatement, even when he is reduced to little more than a feral shadow relentlessly searching the rubble for something, anything to eat. (It's hard to depict a sensation like hunger in a film, but Polanski and Brody never let you forget its presence in the final reels.) The soulful glow of the actor's eyes helps pull you through the film's middle section; when that glow grows dim as Szpilman starts to slip away, it's genuinely alarming. Brody's performance is so contained, Polanski's direction so controlled, that the film's remarkably few self-conscious Big Moments--Szpilman's abrupt farewell to his family, a midnight recital for a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann)--feel well-earned.
As does what amounts to a comeback for Polanski. The Pianist is based on the real Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir (adapted for the screen by Ronald Harwood), and given the fact that Polanski is a Polish Jew who lost his mother to the Holocaust and went through Szpilman-esque experiences during the war himself, his affinity for such a story is to be expected. But Polanski reaffirms the greatness of his early career by returning to its hallmark--clear-eyed dispassion, even telling a story that might as well be his own. In the end, it is what makes The Pianist resonate most.