We’re midway through the second week of this year’s Ultimate Decades Blogathon. Today’s entry is also the final participant before Kim and I wrap up the blogathon to close out the week. And our last participant is one of the most unique film bloggers I know: SG from Rhyme and Reason. I describe his blog as unique because he is the only blogger I know who combines his passion for poetry with his love of film. If you aren’t familiar, you can see what I mean below. Follow his site to keep up with all of SG’s poetic musings. Today, SG reviews 2002’s war film The Pianist.
What would you do were you hunted and hated?
What if your value were hotly debated?
What could you share with the Cain to your Abel
To sway them to see you as more than a label?
What if your neighbors were hunted and hated?
What if their murders were premeditated?
What would you wager with apathy reigning,
Invisible blood on your consciences staining?
What can be said to a world homicidal
Or to the sane few who decide to stay idle?
What can be done in the face of offenses
But pray and wait for them to come to their senses?
MPA rating: R
I find it hard enough keeping up with modern Best Picture contenders, so there’s still a vast number of nominees from decades past that I have yet to watch. When I finally get around to them, they often feel like films I should have seen long ago, and The Pianist is no exception. While its reputation may be dimmed by the distasteful scandal surrounding director Roman Polanski, it’s hard to argue with the quality of this story of survival, based on the memoir of Polish Jew Wladyslaw Szpilman, which won Polanski the Oscar for Best Director.
Adrian Brody won a deserving Best Actor Oscar as well for playing Szpilman, a Warsaw pianist whose life is irrevocably changed when the Germans invade Poland in 1939. Instead of playing classical standards on Polish radio, he is forcibly relocated to the walled Warsaw Ghetto, along with his parents and siblings, where money and hopes gradually dwindle. While occasional news of the Allies provides distant optimism, Szpilman is progressively stripped of everything he held dear – his home, his family, his career, food, housing, and any form of security – mirroring the relentless destruction of the city as the German occupation and the war drag on.
At first, I was a little disappointed at how passive Szpilman seemed as a protagonist. He often says he wants to “help” others’ plans, but more often, things happen to him, and he would have died many times over if not for the kindness of strangers. But I soon realized that this was the point and part of how Szpilman survived, since being proactive was a likely way to get killed. He acts as a spectator to the struggle of his city, often looking out a high window and watching events play out on the street below him, from Nazi cruelty to the efforts of Polish rebels. His passivity highlights the helplessness of those who could do little more than endure in the face of rampant inhumanity; the sane rarely have a solution when the world goes mad around them.
The Pianist can feel like one of those films one feels obligated to see, not just for its accolades, but for its important role of preserving history in all its ugliness. Films like Schindler’s List, United 93, or Grave of the Fireflies are not “entertaining” in the conventional sense, even if they present compelling stories. They can feel like slogs through suffering, especially since The Pianist is quite long at two and half hours, but the reality of what is depicted deepens them beyond a run-of-the-mill movie. Even if the style strives for objectivity, they become a vicarious window into documented tragedy which engenders more true empathy than a textbook or documentary ever could. In this case, it presented Szpilman’s harsh lived experience, which clearly meant much to Polanski who also survived a Polish ghetto as a child during World War II.
It’s hard to believe that The Pianist lost Best Picture to Chicago of all movies, which seems like a Shakespeare in Love-level steal to me. The period detail is impeccable, and the script is moving in its simplicity, from the irony of the Szpilmans rejoicing at the news that Britain and France have entered the war to the subtle heartache Wladyslaw squelches during a rushed reunion. Brody is at his best, especially during the piano scenes that he at least partially played himself (overdubbed by a professional pianist), and his interactions run the full spectrum of cruelty and kindness that is never limited by nationality or race. I rather wish that the film had included more details at the end, such as the fact that Szpilman went on to have a family of his own, but The Pianist is still a landmark Holocaust film that shows that the horror was not confined to concentration camps but extended to every moment of survival.
Best line: (Szpilman) “I don’t know how to thank you.” (a kind German captain) “Thank God, not me. He wants us to survive. Well, that’s what we have to believe.”
© 2022 S.G. Liput
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