Anatomy of a Masterpiece – Roman Polanski’s THE PIANIST

Better than Schlinder's List? A comprehensive look at a true 21st century great.

Welcome to the first in a new Obsessed With Film feature where I'll regularly be taking a close look at great movies from each decade beginning in this edition with the noughties, and Roman Polanski'sPalme D'or winning picture 'The Pianist'. Throughout this article, I'll be offering my thoughts on why I feel that 'The Pianist' is a cut above most films in dealing with the Holocaust subject matter, giving some background on why the film was made and dissecting the footage in terms of character, structure, imagery and dialogue to show how the movie deals expertly with these cinematic conventions. INTRODUCTION As I will explore further throughout this anatomy, I feel that 'The Pianist' is particularly impressive for finally presenting its subject matter of the Holocaust with an underplayed and non-judgemental tone. It resists the easy approach of swelling music and close ups of the victims eyes in order to arouse sympathy and opts instead for a brutal, honest and laconic representation of war. The film is not about blame nor good versus evil; it is a stark portrayal of the human condition and an extraordinary journey of survival amidst a horrifying event. So please join me as we take a copy of 'The Pianist' into film hospital and examine in closer detail just why it is so darn impressive. BACKGROUNDRoman Polanski was always destined to one day make a film about the Holocaust. After all, he had carried around the pain from his own experiences of the event in which his mother had died and as an artist there was only so long that those feelings could remain internalised.

He resisted approaching the subject matter for many years however being confronted along the way by a greater tragedy when his pregnant wife was brutally killed during the infamous Charles Manson murders. Not only had he lost his wife and unborn child but the killings were shamefully exploited by the media thus transforming the event into a type of cult circus. In 1993, Polanski was offered the chance to direct 'Schindler€™s List' but he declined for two key reasons: from a personal perspective the film€™s setting of Krakow felt a little too close for comfort for the director as it was the same location where he had been forced to escape the ghettos as a young boy. Also from an artistic standpoint, Polanski wasn€™t enamoured with the more commercial aspects of the screenplay which he felt that director Steven Spielberg would be much better suited to filming owing to his more mainstream credentials. Whilst reading the memoir of famous pianist and Holocaust survivor Wladysaw Spzilman however Polanski was taken in by its dry, detached tone which de described fondly as being €œwithout sentimentalism or embellishments.€ He also felt it was important that the memoirs had been written pretty much straight after the war which meant that the attention to detail was stronger than the majority of books which are usually written some 20-30 years after the event has occurred. So with this in mind Polanski decided to finally embrace the dark chapter of his childhood and began a series of intense conversations with writer Ronald Harwood who would end up adapting the screenplay and eventually winning an Oscar for his efforts. Whereas 'Schindler€™s List' turned out to be a beautifully shot and emotionally charged film which used a similar conventional, Hollywood narrative as seen in early Holocaust films such as 'Judgement at Nuremberg'; Polanski€™s artistic vision would be more akin to a film such as 'All Quiet on the Western Front'; a more frank, colourless look at war where the greatest enemy is clear established as the war itself.

In wider academic circles it is rare for a successful film about the Holocaust to not fall into heavy debate over its representation. Films such as 'Life is Beautiful', 'Jacob the Liar' and 'Schindler€™s List' have all received their fair share of criticism from various scholars who feel that the films exploit the Holocaust by making the event too cinematic and accessible. 'The Pianist' has managed to largely avoid this same criticism whilst still remaining a great success. The following anatomy aims to investigate the reasons why:

CHARACTER / STRUCTURE Due to the overwhelming nature of the genocide that occurred in the Holocaust, the characters within the filmic representations tend to be overshadowed by the plot. For this reason a vast majority of the Jewish characters are presented solely as hapless victims, merely one dimensional footnotes within a horrifying historical event. Such films can not be blamed really for presenting the victims in this manner because this is what we have come to expect from films dealing with this delicate subject matter. After all the idea appears to be cinematically obvious; the Jewish characters are the victims within a well known mass scale tragedy. Therefore we don€™t need to know about them we just need to what happened to them. This is the representation offered in most Holocaust films but thankfully Roman Polanskiis a director why doesn€™t strive to be cinematically obvious and his more layered vision is truly something to be admired. Take for example a brilliant scene where we witness the early impact of the war on Jewish people. Szpilman's family have just learned that they will soon be deported; rather than just simply feel sorry for themselves however, their response is wide ranging; one family member wants to leave for the country, the other wants to fight, another is just baffled. These are natural human responses which bring the victims to life and highlight the absurdity of the situation. It also becomes easy to identify with their predicament and to try and consider what your own plan of action would be within these outrageous circumstances. It is only two minutes long but this authentic passage of dialogue is so much more impressive than a swelling score accompanying a series of solemn and interchangeable faces as seen in so many other films. Instead they are portrayed as real life characters who happen to be victims rather than victims who just happen to be characters. Another admirable quality of 'The Pianist' in regards to character is the honest approach to the human condition. The war has had a key impact on any number of people making for good Germans and bad Germans, good Jews and bad Jews and good Poles and bad Poles. Often only circumstance is to blame such as when an old, starving man knocks a tin of soup from out of a woman€™s hands and begins to lick the liquid from the pavement whilst she hits him viciously with her handbag. It is a sorry sight and expertly shows that when push comes to shove there is in essence little that seperates our race from the animal kingdom. Of course, the lead character himself is the pianist Wladysaw Szpilman. He is not a hero but rather a passive figure who is for a long time unable to comprehend what is happening to his people. We spent a large majority of the film locked in small hiding places with the film€™s protagonist. We watch as the character gradually disintegrates whilst offered no cinematic clue as to when and how things my start to improve. In the end, the reason for Spzilman€™s survival boils down to the sheer bloody minded determination to stay focused and alive. And a lot of luck too. The effect of remaining hidden with Spzilman has a two-fold effect on the viewer, for one it creates a disorientating atmosphere and so we are able to emphasise with the obvious paranoia surrounding the lead character never knowing when he might be caught or be forced to leave. The other key effect of this representation is that as a viewer we see only glimpses of the chaos through Spzilman€™s window frames and so the film rather than trying to present the totality of the action, is instead giving us what you might call an €˜object of representation.€™ In other words, there are millions of stories out there about the Holocaust from millions of different people effected but this just happens to be Szpiman€™s account. When you are dealing with a subject as layered and complicated and wideranging as the Holocaust it can become easy to find yourself caught up in offering a history lesson. By only showing us small glimpses of the genocide however Polanski makes it clear that there are many unseen qualities of the Holocaust and as such it can not be offered a single representation. IMAGERY / SOUND The piano is an essential object in this film as it absolutely key to Spzilman€™s survival. After being forced to dessert his family and then having to live in isolation with his fate a complete unknown quantity, the thoughts about his music are perhaps the only thing keeping him going. This idea is emphasised when Spzilman locates a piano in one of his hiding spaces. He is unable to play because he will give himself away so instead we watch his fingers moving in thin air whilst the sound plays in his head and to the viewer. It is these moments of escapism that help to maintain the character€™s willingness to survive. After witnessing such death and destruction the music becomes key to restoring some form of inner peace and calm. The more barbaric sequences in Polanski€™s film are handled with a direct, unrelenting quality that leaves the viewer cold. In one sequence a Jewish family are ordered to stand when their house is interrogated by some SS officers. An old man in a wheelchair can obviously not oblige this wish and so he is simply dumped from his chair and over the balcony onto the street cracking his head on the pavement far down below. During this sequence there is no score capturing this powerful moment of drama nor are there any close-ups on the faces of the shocked family€ our emotion is not being guided by the director but rather he is leaving us emotionless, numb to such unspeakable violence. This is another admirable quality of the film which has been criticised by some critics as being too anti-cinema. But this is the point of the film€ you watch films about the war and due to the way that the picture is filmed you come away with a certain emotional knowledge.Polanski's very purpose however is to design scenes which by their nature leave the audience in a position where the only feeling they can generate is one of great disturbance and shock. It is vital that the audience are unable to comprehend the violence on screen because to try and comprehend an event such as the Holocaust is just not possible. There is another haunting image in the film which occurs when a series of Jews have been ordered to lye down and take a bullet in the head. The officer moves one by one, casually murdering the men in front of him with a shot to the temple. As he approaches the final victim he runs out of ammunition. A cinematic interpretation of this moment would suggest that the man has been saved, spared his life by the hands of God. In The Pianist however there is no such luck. Quite simply, the officer reloads his pistol and kills the old man who has had to undergo the excruciating wait before being put out of his misery. The scene appears to be a direct response to a similar sequence in Schindler€™s List where Amon Goeth€™s pistol malfunctions making him unable to go through with the act of killing a factory worker. You get the impression that had Polanski shot that scene, Goeth would have killed the worker with several blunt hits to the head with the said object. As screenwriter Ronald Harwood discusses in the making of the film, his and Polanski's representation is based on trying to show war for what it is. After all its true nature is not sentimental or full of high drama, it is simply brutal and barbaric:
It€™s a dreadful historical event and you can€™t start glamorising it, you can€™t soften it. You have to tell it as you believe it is. I mean there is no ultimate truth to it because we can€™t explain it in anyway, so the truth is very difficult to get at. But whatever the truth is in you of that subject (in one), you have to be true to that truth.
STRUCTURE By the very nature of cinema we expect to be given certain narrative clues that enable us to suspect particular turning points within the plot/story. For example a sad tune playing over the scene provides the extra emphasis to know that we are watching a particularly sorrowful moment. 'The Pianist' resists the urge to be dramatically satisfying, instead underplaying the big moments in order to tie in with the film€™s unsentimental approach. Every turning point is sudden and unexpected much like life itself. In a split second Spzilman is taken away from his family and we discover later on that he never saw them again. Then Spzilman spends a series of agonising moments whilst in hiding €“ there are no uplifting moments when we think that we might escape nor is there an attempt to crank up the suspense to suggest that he could be captured. When Spzilman is discovered by a German officer, there is just a sad realisation that the journey for survival has come to and end and then a surprising twist when the German officer decides to keep Spzilman€™s hiding space secret. Only at this moment are we offered any form of cinematic release as Spzilman plays the piano for the SS officer and nearly brings a tear to his eye in the process. At this point we feel somewhat enlightened and encouraged by Spzilman€™s survival and for the first time we are offered a cinematic clue that he will be okay. But this moment of sentimentality is quickly overturned when Spzilman is nearly killed by his fellow countryman due to wearing a borrowed SS coat. This moment almost feels like Polanski is warning the audience that emotion does not dictate the ending to the film but luck does and that Spzilman is in fact very lucky to be alive. It is important that the drama is underplayed and that the structure of the film moves against the conventions of natural cinema because it is essential that the film gets across the point that there isn€™t going to be a happy ending. Even though Spzilman lives and we celebrate the triumph of survival, the overriding feeling is one of neither restrained jubilance nor sorrow but rather a numb sensation which encapsulates all the incomprehensible horror and violence that has gone before it. DIALOGUE The dialogue in the film is very befitting of the circumstance. When Spzilman's family are being deported the tone is very reflective as he tells his sister that he wished he knew her better. This is a rather tender moment that feels authentic and sincere rather than an attempt to simply incorporate some heart-tugging sentimentality. Dialogue is also used effectively in the opening third of the film to showcase the plethora of emotions in regards to the war. There are arguments, debates, pleas, worries€ etc we get a real, clear sense of the impact that the situation is having on the characters and ultimately the dialogue helps us to see that we are watching real people in a very real and terrifying situation. There are no narratively satisfying embellishments played up for the sake of drama and the film is also careful to confuse the audience as much as the victims€. like them we become caught up in the chaos, not knowing what to expect next but ultimately fearing the worse. This is a very different approach to more mainstream films about the Holocaust which use a range of cinematic techniques in order to clearly establish an exaggerated bleak atmosphere. PERFORMANCES There are a range of good performances in the film but Adrien Brody dominates the screen and he is utterly compelling from first moment to last. He acts with every fibre of his being, not just in the way he talks and his body language but also the way his eyes move, the movement of his cheekbones and a number of other mannerisms which help to bring to life the character through such vivid detail. He seems to be completely absorbed by the role and there are never any signs of anyone but his character on screen. What is also impressive about the performance is the journey he makes from the healthy looking, proud pianist all the way to a thick skin of a creature who can barely hold onto a piece of bread. It is an epic transformation comparable to Robert De Niro in' Raging Bull' and one which no doubt helped him to bag the leading actor Oscar. An award, which I might add was fully deserved in a very tough year of nominees. CONCLUSIONUltimately 'The Pianist' is so striking for not conforming to typical cinematic conventions and for essentially not turning the Holocaust into a typical cinematic experience. It is a cold, harsh approach to a cold and harsh subject matter and it treats its history with the utmost respect, detailing the experiences of one man and one one journey whilst implying that many others exist. It is does not force emotion upon the viewer and neither does it try and suggest blame. It merely highlights the incomprehensible nature of war and examines the psychology of the human condition when people are forced to make horrifying decisions and act in terrible ways just in order to survive within their surroundings. It is stunning and without doubt in my mind the finest feature film to deal with the Holocaust subject matter. Better than 'Schindler's List' then? In my opinion the two films are not even in the same league... I hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy read and please me join me again in a few weeks time when I€™ll be taking a trip into the nineties to anatomise the mafia classic 'Goodfellas.' See you then.
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