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Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2003

The scars of a war survivor

The Pianist

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Senjyo no Pianist
Director: Roman Polanski
Running time: 149 minutes
Language: English
Showing from Feb. 15

When "Schindler's List" came out, it took some criticism for being unrepresentative of the Holocaust; the decent German and the rescued Jew were the exception, not the rule. But think about it: "Schindler's List" was a hard film to endure, even with the ray of hope it offered at the end. Without that affirmation of humanity, what audience would seek to experience the horrific finality that was the norm at the concentration camps?

News photo
Adrien Brody andThomas Kretchmann in "The Pianist"

As such, Roman Polanski's latest addition to cinema's remembrance of the Holocaust, "The Pianist" (which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year) is also exceptional, in that it tells the story of a survivor. It also happens to be true, based on the memoirs of Polish classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, an urban aesthete who, alone among his family, managed to survive the Nazi occupation through a combination of guile and sheer luck.

There's also a lot of Polanski's personal history woven into the film. The director -- like Szpilman, a Polish Jew -- was a child when the war broke out, and though he survived the Krakow ghetto, he never entirely put it behind him. The cruelty and inhumanity he experienced was absorbed at a deep level, surfacing in films as diverse as "Repulsion," "Tess" and "Bitter Moon." With "The Pianist," for the first time, Polanski directly addresses the roots of his disillusionment.

The film begins in Warsaw, 1939, on the brink of the Nazi invasion. Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is playing some Chopin for a live radio broadcast when the first shells begin to bombard the city. Szpilman flinches, but continues playing smoothly, mirroring the general perception at the time that life would somehow go on despite the war, as it had a generation earlier.

Then a shell crashes directly onto the studio, showering the musician in dust and debris, and the music comes to a sudden, stunned halt. Simple, token acts of resistance mean nothing, that's the terrifying message imparted. This time around, nothing and no one will be left unscarred.

Polanski, very matter-of-factly and without any trace of Hollywood exaggeration, depicts the reality of trying to survive under the fascist occupation. Szpilman and his family -- parents and siblings -- see their bourgeois lifestyle collapse bit by bit, as hunger and desperation set in, until they're finally relocated to the ghetto, a walled-off sector of Warsaw in which the Jewish population is confined.

Szpilman works as a pianist at a cafe whose patrons are largely Jews collaborating with the Nazis, while his brother hooks up with the fledgling resistance movement. But the daily indignities -- like when a pair of Nazis make Szpilman's elderly father walk in the gutter -- start to escalate into murder. One scene, in which the Gestapo casually toss a crippled man out a window, provoked gasps of horror at the screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Contemporary audiences may be jaded with screen violence, but the sudden, senseless nature of what Polanski chooses to show is truly shocking.

There's a horrible sense of foreboding for viewers watching the ghetto's population being herded into trains by late '42. They're clinging desperately to the lies they're being told of relocation to labor camps; we know all too well, though, what their fate will be.

Szpilman manages to evade deportation and works as a forced-labor conscript, also smuggling guns from under the noses of the Nazi guards. After one close call too many, Szpilman flees the ghetto and is hidden in apartments by non-Jewish friends and sympathizers in Warsaw. The many scenes of Szpilman, feverish with cold and hunger, imprisoned in a flat locked from the outside, fearing every knock and neighbor's voice, cannot help but recall the paranoia that fueled "Repulsion."

From his flat, Szpilman witnesses the Warsaw Uprising until German tank shells devastate the building he's hiding in. Szpilman flees to an utterly ruined sector of the city, devoid of inhabitants, where an even more incredible turn of events awaits him . . .

There are many stories of World War II and the Holocaust, but "The Pianist" proves to be particularly poignant. It's easy for most Tokyo residents to identify with Szpilman's prewar lifestyle: urban, cultured, and educated. Watching how he reacts to the hell that engulfs him is also to imagine how we would react as well. To see a talented, respected, successful man reduced to a staggering, homeless refugee with the look of a gangly scarecrow, risking death for a tin of pickles, is indeed a sobering moment.

But despite being reduced to a near-animal existence, Szpilman keeps the music alive within himself, practicing silent keyboard exercises in his flat, or playing for his life under the eyes of a Nazi officer. Polanski gives us some hope here, that beauty and art can transcend the worst horrors the world has to offer, and that music can bridge even the differences between an Aryan and a Jew.

But listen closely to the performance by Szpilman, in a post-war concert hall, that marks the film's finale. While there's an air of triumph to it, of having overcome all odds, the music is also marked by an unmistakable pain and sorrow. Even the music has not been left unscarred. The viewer, likewise, will be haunted by images from "The Pianist" long after the film has ended.

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