Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
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3 Feb

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Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002) POLAND
The birdcage is empty
Further thoughts on Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002)

Responding to an article in Kinoeye, Sheila Skaff argues that is wrong to talk about "detachment" with regard to Polanski's Palme d'Or winner and the film is not "simple" but merely exhibits a tasteful lack of both hyperbole and obtrusive technique.

In Roman Polanski's 1974 Chinatown, an iniquitous, incestuous millionaire dismisses accusations with, "I don't blame myself. You see, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time, in the right place they are capable of anything." I have never been sure whether the paradox in this line lay in the "face" or in the "fact," but it has seemed to me that the filmmaker has been sharpening his skills and biding his time for years as he inches toward its explanation. In his portrayals of Los Angeles in the 1930s (Chinatown), a terrified young woman in London (Repulsion), a vulnerable immigrant in Paris (Le Locataire / The Tenant) and a formerly tortured, now torturing wife somewhere in South America (Death and the Maiden), Polanski's signature has been the recreation of the times, places and imagined dangers, which provide fuel for his examinations of the process of becoming capable of anything.

Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002)Polanski comes closer than ever to an explanation in his most recent film, The Pianist. Here, though, the dangers are as unimaginable as they are real. The Pianist is adapted from the Holocaust memoirs of piano composer and performer Władysław Szpilman, who passed away in Warsaw in 2000. Adrien Brody plays the elegant Władek, whose musical talent and ambition are matched by his charm, grace, love of family and self-confidence. Of his six family members, he alone survives the war, working in the Warsaw ghetto and hiding in several places on both sides of the ghetto wall.

In the December 16 issue of Kinoeye, Wojtek Kość claims that the crux of the film is Władek's cool, expressionless character. The reviewer suggests it would be more natural for the audience to perceive Władek, at least at first, as shocked or despairing. Kość believes that in watching the film the viewer may be haunted by the thought that it "could have been so much more interesting if Polanski had given way to his weirdness."

I for one was not haunted in this way. What could be weirder than a child who instinctively averts his eyes or another who is bludgeoned to death in a hole in a ghetto wall? A homeless woman in a feathered cap begs people to write to her if they see her husband; The tall and short and lame are told to dance; An old man plays Nazi with the Nazis, and is offered a cigarette; A starving man yanks a pot of soup from a woman's hands, gobbling it from the street as the woman cries.

What could be weirder than rained-upon forced laborers who have to listen as a fat officer, his feet covered in dough-boy boots, tells them in broken speech that they will not be resettled? What could be weirder than the Nazis "ohhs" and "ahhs" as their burning victims jump from balconies? Or a guardian, who makes his entrance with, "Still alive, then?"

Criticism of the film for its lack of engagement tends to isolate its main character. Kość's understanding of Władek's detachment ignores the pain that he obviously suffers throughout most of the film as well as his artistic, rather than diplomatic, temperament. "He is detached," he writes, "as if he himself was watching a film." This understanding displaces the character and the film. The Pianist is not an example of the hyperreal, but of a certain tightrope between introversion and insolence that may irritate some viewers but ultimately gives the film its sense.

Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002)
Polanski on the set of The Pianist
Brody portrays the processes of understanding that a musician of Szpilman's caliber might possess, as well and the subjectivity, conceit and presumptuousness. Face to face with a German officer, for example, Władek clutches a can of pickles like a child with a teddy-bear. As he clings to his treasure he is tender, composed and unadulterated at the mercy of a representative of an army, whose wartime motives are still as unfathomed by him as they are generally unfathomable. As Władek's plea, "I'm cold," also demonstrates, until the end he has retained enough faith in his own behavior to accept that nobody has any legitimate reason to shoot him.

The film's seeming technical and narrative simplicity are the outcome of tasteful direction and seamless editing rather than cool-hearted distance. There are few slow-motion scenes, no flashbacks, no extreme close-ups of gore. Instead, cinematographer Paweł Edelman focuses on victims' eyes in the split-second of realization before imminent death, or on eyes slowly lifting into light under the shadows of heavy eyebrows and smart hats. The camera often rests patiently on Władek's long fingers.

In contrast, it captures Nazis, who do not hesitate, but kill with single, cruel motions—a single bullet to the head, a swift toss from a balcony. It pauses to watch Nazis torch bodies and casually eat while they burn. The Warsaw uprising begins with men in suits opening fire, gangster-like, on the street below Władek. In sharp focus, the bodies are perfect and self-contained, which makes their destruction all the more penetrating. There are minor problems, but the single touch of unnecessarily dramatic music and the strained graphic manipulation are not enough to distract from the near-perfection that the film embodies.

Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002)It is also to the film's advantage that Polanski does not stereotype his characters. Władek is saved by individuals, who trust and admire him, including a Jewish businessman, a Jewish policeman, a socialist, Catholic musicians and members of the underground and, eventually, a German officer. People from the same national and religious groups assault and denounce him. There is friendship rather than solidarity, individuals rather than groups, luck rather than heroics.

I admire The Pianist for its shattering of conventions and its fixation on the main character's stunning reflexes. Władek never sees or imagines the concentration camps. Though he is given an indication that his family has probably perished in them, in his nightmares their execution takes place against the familiar ghetto wall. His physical and emotional distance from the camps is one of several factors that allows the film to avoid creating a formulaic, audience anticipation-driven connection between one's own morality and one's own fate.

The ingenuity of The Pianist is how it uses a conventional medium to tell a single person's story, which takes place in a world that has snapped and withdraws at the moment that this begins to put itself together again. Władek drives the entire film. The windows that he opens to escape and the doors that he shuts behind him fill the screen. His constant, assured presence is as essential as it is potentially ingratiating. By following him alone Polanski portrays his subjectivity—existence among utter volatility.

In one scene, in which the Szpilman family and a thousand others await deportation, a little girl holds an empty birdcage. She cries as she looks above and around her. The bird that flew its nest is Polanski's metaphor for a world gone awry, in which a person becomes capable of anything.

But luckily, just as a person in the right time and place is capable of disaster, so too is one capable of creating a near-masterpiece. And this, in my opinion, is just what Polanski has achieved.

Sheila Skaff

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About the author

Sheila Skaff is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Comparative Literature at University of Michigan.

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