Polanski triumphed at Cannes but has also received critical flak for the lack of engagement in his Holocaust drama. Wojtek Kość argues that this intensely personal film is all the more disquieting for the absence of Polanski's trademark "oddity."
Many film adaptations find themselves recreating the original source (at least partly) and presenting a competing version that often divides the audience between those who favour the film and those who favour the book. In the case of The Pianist (2002) by Roman Polanski (or Polański as it is written in Polish), however, the truth is that there is no such tension: there are no striking differences between the two. If you read the book first, the film will hold no surprises. And vice versa, if you went to the cinema first, you will only find confirmation in the book of what you had just seen.
Both the book and the film—the latter winning this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes—are stories told in a very simple way: events follow one another in a linear order as we see young Władysław Szpilman playing Chopin in a Polish Radio studio in Warsaw, where the war catches up with him in the middle of a sonata. Then we have Szpilman's ordeal, one that became the ultimate fate for the devastating majority of his compatriots: compulsory armbands displaying the Star of David, executions, the ghetto and the Umschlagplatz from where trains to Auschwitz departed. He survived thanks to extraordinary luck or to God's willingness to save him, if you like. But seeing Polanski's name on film posters all across Poland, one is tempted to think that this should have been something as extraordinary and bizarre as his previous productions—with Le Locataire (The Tenant, 1976) and Cul-de-sac (1966) coming immediately to mind.
Given the simplicity of its literary inspiration, perhaps the film could not have been made in usual Polanski style. Polanski himself declared many times before the film hit the screens that it was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, and most difficult undertaking of his filmmaking career. He was once asked why he did not attempt to film his own experiences in wartime Kraków and he replied that it would be too much to bear. A film on the Warsaw ghetto was somewhat more bearable, but still it was painful enough to attempt any formal experiments. It is interesting in a way, but there is this haunting thought: it could have been so much more interesting if Polanski had given way to his weirdness.
Then, as you watch The Pianist progress, you start noticing that there is, in fact, something weird to it. It's Szpilman himself. You may have expected that Szpilman, surrounded by such absurd drama, would be shocked, appalled, despairing, surprised at least. But no, he is none of that. He is detached, as if he himself was watching a film.
There is a striking scene of Warsaw Jews getting resettled to the ghetto. They fill the streets, pushing, pulling, and carrying their belongings, all faces expressing grief and uncertainty. Szpilman walks with the crowd showing absolutely no expression on his face, as if in some reverie. He wakes from this reverie only once: back in the emptied ghetto, he cries while walking the deserted streets. Later, Polish soldiers shoot at him because he wears a German officer's coat. Asked why the hell he was wearing it, the detachment surfaces in the simplest of answers: "I'm cold."
The book is written in the same manner. Progressing from day to day, week to week, in the dying city, Szpilman records his suffering with a stunning coolness. The most dramatic encounter—with Wilm Hosenfeld, the German officer who saved him (not only by not shooting him at once, but by giving him food and shelter)—is described as nothing more but yet another event in a series. Here, however, Polanski–had to intervene: the encounter in the film is dramatic and moving, indeed. There is a classic shot of Hosenfeld, with the camera moving slowly upwards from his leather boots, showing the whole awesome beauty of the Nazi uniform—one of the favourite aesthetic devices of filmmakers. You have seen such scenes hundreds of times, and yet this one is still gripping.
And so are the film and the book. Perhaps this is where the power of them both lies. Maybe Polanski has seen too many war movies overflowing with pathos. Maybe Szpilman could not find a better way to describe what he saw. Both of them had lived through the war and both of them may have thought that it is best just to tell a story. A simple story that has it all and even more.