Tracing Polanski's work from the 1960s to his latest film, The Pianist (2002), Gordana P Crnković examines how the director's focus on body parts has mirrored an interest in the victim's double vision and urged positive action over fatal passivity and misplaced deeds.
As far as the Germans go [...] Those who play the German officers [...] were playing roles, they are actors. And very recently I organized the screening [of The Pianist] for the crew and for the actors in Babelsberg and I saw those guys without the costumes. These were the German monsters in the movie. And then at that screening I saw them again without all that garb, their hair sometimes completely blond, dyed... with earrings, glasses; charming, intelligent, delightful people, really nice people. And that was a shock for me, because I thought that those people that we saw during the war performing the most despicable acts could have been dressed and looked like those actors whom I saw. It was some kind of realization you know, realization that anyone is capable of anything at the given time in the history.—Roman Polanski
Significant close-ups & the victim's double vision
A recurring stylistic device in the films of Roman Polanski is the circular framing of the film: an image, functioning as a metonymic part standing for the whole, appears at the rhetorically crucial beginning and end points of the film. A long take of the sea, for example, opens and ends the fascinating short Dwaj ludzie z szafą (Two Men and a Wardrobe, Poland, 1959), made while Polanski was still a film student. A woman driving a car and a man sitting beside her, shot from in front of the windshield, opens Nóź w wodzie (Knife in the Water, Poland, 1962), and is again repeated at the very end of the film (this time with the man driving and the woman sitting next to him), and is all but closing the film, followed only by a long take of their car standing at a cross-roads.
Repulsion (UK, 1965) begins and ends with a long and disquieting close-up of a blinking eye. Although it does not open the film, a close-up of a screaming mouth appears close to the beginning of Le Locataire (The Tenant, France, 1976), and also ends the film. Prefaced with a quick close-up of a hand with a bow playing a cello, a long take of a string quartet's performance opens Death and the Maiden (USA / UK / France, 1994), and the same long take ends the film. Following archival footage of Warsaw in 1939, the close-up shot of hands playing a piano begins Polanski's latest film The Pianist (2002), and a similar close-up shot of hands playing a piano ends the film.
If we look more particularly only at the close-ups of the parts of the human body serving as these important images, we see that Polanski's films go, so to speak, from the silent eye of Repulsion through the screaming mouth of Le Locataire to the performing hands of The Pianist. This almost forty-year-long journey from the silent eye to the performing hands is connected, I will argue in this essay, with Polanski's films' progression of successive answers dealing with what I will call "the victim's double vision."
I have coined this term because it fits an aspect of Polanski's films that I will elaborate on shortly. Much has been written about Polanski's work dealing with victimization, uncannily articulating the victim's view of things, as well as showing the precarious dynamics of victims turning into perpetrators, but the important thing missing in this discussion is Polanski's films' treatment of the specific "double vision" available to victims and mostly inaccessible to the society around them and often even to the people closest to them. This double vision involves victims' knowing—or rather seeing—that people who look fully normal to others have the potential to be monsters capable of the worst atrocities.
This potential, however, is revealed only to the victims. A young woman, for instance, may look at an old family photograph and see a male relative or friend who was seen as part of that family by her parents, yet had repeatedly raped this woman when she was a child. A young man knows that others see the co-tenants in his building as upright regular people, but only he sees them as relentless and sadistic torturers of himself. A woman may see a man who appears highly respectable to others including her husband, and yet recognize in him a person who tortured her when she was imprisoned many years ago.
In short, the victims see and internalize both how others see their victimizers—as ordinary or even highly esteemed people, charming and intelligent—and how they themselves see and know their victimizers: as people capable of the most heinous abuse. Thus the double vision. Being already profoundly shattered and weakened by the experience of victimization, knowing that society would likely proclaim them unreliable or even delusional if they came forth with their hard or impossible to prove accusations of "upright solid citizens," and trying to suppress their past of victimization in order to go on living, the victims most often do not share with others their double vision, and therefore end up even more sealed within it and affected by it.
The important aspect of victims' double vision is its universality, its tendency to spill over from being the vision of one or even many particular people into being a vision of all people of a certain group or place, or of all people in general. Once one experiences how nice, normal people can behave monstrously in conducive circumstances, one sees all people as having that potential in them, all people as capable of committing horrible deeds given the "right circumstances." As Chinatown's Noah Cross says: "Most people never have to face the fact that given the right circumstances they are capable of—anything!"
Polanski articulates this same vision in the comments on The Pianist cited in the epitaph of this essay: "[A]nyone is capable of anything at the given time in the history." Making an analogy between the cinematic performance and a historical one, Polanski realizes with an epiphanic shock that the real historical Germans in Warsaw and the Warsaw Ghetto, just like those actors portraying them in the film, could have also been the monsters only while they were performing their given official roles of mass murderers. Outside of that realm these real Germans may have also been, like the actors portraying them, "charming, intelligent, delightful people." And these "really nice people" can and did commit really terrible deeds.
Polanski's own life was marked by experiences of utmost victimization (but also by survival), which would have given him an intimate insight into this potential of ordinary people to become victimizers given the right circumstances, articulated in his films. Born in 1933, Polanski was interned as a child in the Krakow Ghetto in German-occupied Poland, from which his parents were taken to the camps, his pregnant mother never to return. Polanski escaped by being pushed through the hole in the wall of the Ghetto by his father, and survived the war in the countryside and as a member of street gangs.
Years later, in 1969, now a successful Hollywood director of Rosemary's Baby (1968)—a film that enjoyed "glowing reviews and blockbuster success"—Polanski got news of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, then eight-months-pregnant, being murdered in a gruesome mass slaughter by the Manson gang. Being himself charged with the statutory rape of a thirteen-year-old girl a decade later, Polanski was forced to leave the US for France in 1978, and is now unable to return.
The victim's double vision is not present in all of Polanski's films which deal with victimization in one way or another, but it reoccurs in a significant number of them, and is dealt with differently each time. On one hand, Polanski's films shape a succession of possible ways of the articulation of that vision so that it can be expressed and shared by the outsiders, who may thus learn not only that other nice, decent people have it in themselves to become victimizers, but also confront the possibility that they themselves have the potential of becoming victimizers in the "right circumstances." (And while it may be justly inconceivable to the great majority of people that they could ever become victimizers in ordinary circumstances, it gets much harder to be sure that one would not become a victimizer—of women and children among others—if sufficiently prompted by the call of duty, or patriotism, or any other "higher reason" which customarily justifies victimization of other people at a given moment, and makes "charming, intelligent, delightful people" turn into "monsters [...] performing the most despicable acts," as Polanski put it.)
On the other hand, Polanski's films also obsessively work through possible ways of a victim's dealing with that vision, starting with the sheer inability to deal with it, but then returning to it over and over again in search of other ways of engaging with it. Polanski's films thus work out a series of different answers to one and the same question: how does one go on living while knowing and seeing that anyone and everyone around you, possibly including yourself, can—given the right moment—turn into a murderer? How does one go on living "normal lives" with the victim's double vision that sees how people, given the right circumstances, can commit really horrible deeds with what seems an astonishing ease? And, to get back to my initial query, how does some forty-odd-years-long progression of significant close-ups of the parts of the human body which frame Polanski's films address this question?
I will not discuss all the films containing the victim's double vision (thus excluding, for instance, Polanski's popular 1968 Rosemary's Baby), but rather briefly talk about the films which I think present significant steps in Polanski's cinematic articulation of this concern, specifically Repulsion (1965), Le Locataire (1976), Chinatown (1974) and Death and the Maiden (1994), and then discuss at more length a film central to this essay, Polanski's latest, The Pianist (2002). I composed my argument in what I would describe as a "braid format," with several inter-twined strands which are mutually related. The first strand has to do with the changes in dealing with the victim's double vision in each of these films; the second strand has to do with the changes in the choice of a dominant body part put in the symbolic foreground of a film by significantly placed close-ups; and the third strand is related to the gradual change in the overall aesthetics of Polanski's cinematography, progressing from the more expressionistic to more realistic.
Starting from the eye: Repulsion
A classic of psychological horror and one of three films from Polanski's early British period (seen by some as his most original), the black-and-white Repulsion (1965) is a story of a "homicidal schizophrenic running amok in her sister's deserted London apartment," as the script's co-writers Polanski and Gerald Brach put it. A beautiful young woman, Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve) is painfully sensitive to the oppressive male behavior towards her.
As male aggression escalates from pervasive male gaze to touch and invasion of Carol's space by her sister's boyfriend, or an unwanted kiss by the boyish-looking Collin who is in love with her, she becomes increasingly delusional and aggressive herself. When left alone by her sister in their apartment for some days, she kills two men who force themselves into it: Collin who is trying to talk to her, and a boorish landlord who is trying to rape her.
Repulsion opens with a startling close-up of a blinking eye which lasts for what seems an interminable time, and then the camera slowly zooms out to reveal the beautiful face of Carol Ledoux, striking from the start in its lack of animation. Carol's eyes and what those eyes see are thus from the very start posited as the focus of the film, often antagonistically but inseparably related to the other center of the film, that of the omnipresent male gaze which takes in her body and which is brought to life in the film by the camera's movements replicating that of a stalker walking uncomfortably closely behind Carol through the streets of London, or by the camera's voyeuristic gaze scanning Carol's body.
The face of a street worker who throws an off-hand proposition to her is seen by Carol as slightly distorted into a more grotesque and alien form, Collin and the landlord are seen through the peep hole on the door which deforms their faces, and Carol looks at her own self with rare interest in the convex surface of a tea-pot, which estranges her image. As Carol becomes more distressed, the eye which can deform the objects of vision which are actually in front of it starts to increasingly see hallucinations: a shadowy man appears in the mirror of the wardrobe, accompanied by the shrill sonic blast of Carol's horror when she sees him, and is not there when she turns around. Home gradually metamorphoses into a different space as seen only by a lone, unhinged Carol: cracks appear on the walls with loud sounds, the space becomes cavernous, deep, circular, womb-like and dark, the corridor's walls pulsate and then grow hands which grab at her body.
And when a man enters her bedroom and her bed in the silent imaginary rape scenes, she never sees his face clearly. He is always a dark silhouette, only vaguely resembling a man from the family photograph which the camera pointedly returns to several times in the film. Taken when Carol was a child, this photograph features her older sister shielded by their mother and father, but portrays Carol standing behind their parents' backs, not seen or in any way visually protected by them. The photo also includes a dark-haired man accompanied by an ominous-looking dog, and Carol's unsmiling gaze is glued on him.
Where her family sees only a dear respected friend or relative, someone so close that he can be included in a family photo, Carol sees a man who repeatedly comes to her at night and rapes her.
Carol's victim's double vision sees this man both as a "normal" man as seen by the rest of society as well as her family (and thus she keeps the family photograph which includes this man as a connection with this family), and also as a sexual predator that he was with her and known—seen—only by her. Because of the universalizing effect of the victim's double vision, the seeing of this one man spills over into seeing all men as potential victimizers despite how they may look or behave. The non-distinct features of Carol's imaginary attacker indicate that the one particular man who abused her as a child has by now merged with all men: Carol is visibly repulsed by all men because any and every man reminds her of, can be, and is seen by her eyes as the man who raped her and continues to rape her in her imagination.
She avoids all men as much as she can, working in a beauty salon and looking with yearning at the small figures of nuns playing and chatting in the courtyard below her window. Eventually the victim's double vision engulfs and swallows reality: Carol does not see her ordinary apartment any more but a live dark space of sexual aggression, and when Collin closes the door behind him he is seen by Carol as replaying the forced entrance of the past abuser.
In the end this vision overtakes Carol completely and is all that is left of her—when found she is not talking or moving, but is still staring with her unblinking eyes and wholly unfocused gaze. The final shot of the film, the long close-up of her eye on the photograph, joins together the cause and the result of Carol's victim's double vision: on one hand childhood's abuse and a child's eyes silently and intensely staring at the perpetrator, on the other Carol's eventual inability to escape a victim's double vision that has destroyed any possibility of realistic looking and functioning. Carol does not end up dead, but rather completely sealed up within that vision and the world created by it.
The victim's enclosure within her double vision, within the world created by her eye and the dominance of that eye which starts and ends everything, is articulated through expressionistic cinematography. Somewhat reminiscent of Hitchcock, Polanski's great idol, Repulsion's expressionism focuses on the highly subjectivized vision of the main character instead of the distanced vision of the filming and camera which rhetorically present themselves as objective.
There is the emphasized use of camera moves and sharp camera angles (eg, the extreme low angle showing Collin's view from the floor at Carol hitting him from above with a heavy candle-stick), extreme close-ups (the mouth of the beauty salon patron saying "men only want one thing"), exaggerated tight framing (of Carol's head when she is walking on the street), emphasized and symbolic use of black-and-white contrasts (Carol's female co-workers are all in white and she herself wears a white night-gown for most of the film and is very light-haired; all men are dressed in black suites; Carol's promiscuous sister wears black and has black hair), sharp light contrasts, the use of sounds (the loud ticking of the clock during the rape scenes), and distorted vistas (eg, through the use of camera lenses).
The sets are constructed to reflect increasing dementia, and inanimate objects are used to reflect the character's state of mind: a rabbit's fly-ridden carcass rots in the room, the potatoes sprout, neither is touched. The scenes happening in Carol's head are shown as the scenes really happening: we deduce only from the context and only a posteriori that, for instance, the scenes of rape must be imaginary; when they happen in the film they are shown as really taking place, with no rhetorical markers to connote them as fantasy.
Only later when obviously improbable things start happening—eg, the walls start growing hands—do we conclude with some certainty that the previous rape scenes were also Carol's visions rather than reality. The whole of this expressionistic cinematography forcefully creates a victim's double vision which progresses—that blinking eye in close-up which, as it were, goes out of control and "grows" through the course of the film—until it crescendos in the final violence and the final and absolute subjugation of a victim under the victorious vision of her eye.
The mouth: Le Locataire
Like Repulsion, Le Locataire (France, 1976) revolves around an increasingly victimized individual and his increasingly delusional vision of his space (his apartment) and the people around him, the tenants of the other apartments. Played by Polanski, the main character Trelkowski is a slim, soft-spoken young man, a French citizen as he says but not "real French" in the eyes of others on account of his accent and his Polish family name. He finds an apartment in a large building in Paris, and moves in after the previous inhabitant, a young woman named Simone Choule, an Egyptologist and probably a lesbian, dies after jumping out of one of her windows.
The other tenants and even people outside of the building subtly force Simone's identity onto Trelkowski by numerous indirect and direct gestures. Though resisting for a while, Trelkowski eventually succumbs and gradually transforms himself into Simone. At the end he dresses and makes up like a woman, climbs onto his window sill and jumps off - twice!
Le Locataire shares Repulsion's expressionist aesthetic marked by exaggerated camera work, use of sounds, caricature-like acting (fronted by Polanski in his drag role of a woman, but also all the tenants and especially the concierge played by Shelley Winters); the use of costumes; the use of strong colors and much red and green, and opera-like staging of certain scenes. The focus is again on the increasingly subjectified vision of a psychologically fragile victim which, in the end, sees "ordinary" people, Trelkowski's co-tenants, as the sadistic crowd wearing Swastikas and expelling at night the other two unwanted people - both women, a mother and a lame daughter - in the light of the torches in what looks like an episode from the Holocaust mixed in with images of medieval scapegoat rituals, or as the opera visitors applauding his suicide attempt, or the predators trying to put a net over him after his first jump and flicking with their snake tongues.
The oppressive male gaze from Repulsion is in Le Locataire replaced with the police-like surveillance gaze of Trelkowski's co-tenants merged with a differentiating and expulsive gaze of a closed collective towards aliens, in this case strongly denoting nationalist rejection. While Carol is repulsed by men, Trelkowski is an object of repulsion for the "pure" nationalist body: he is constantly reminded that he is not "real French," and many look at him with disgust on their faces. And while Carol is an object of male desire and of a desiring gaze which fulfills itself in the physical appropriation of her body, Trelkowski is an object of a nationalist purist gaze that fulfills itself in the physical purge of a foreign, offensive body.
Both Carol and Trelkowski are dreadfully alone, and their solitude is magnified by being enclosed within a space that is supposed to be home but becomes alien and adversarial. Both have increasingly subjectified and magnified visions of their victimizations which start with minor uneasiness and end with major delusions. There is a similar gender cum nationality overlap in both films. Carol is a young woman but also a foreigner (she is a French-speaking Belgian with a strong accent in her spoken English, and her foreignness contributes to her overall isolation and estrangement); and Trelkowski is a foreigner who also becomes a young woman (Simone Choule), as if only by becoming a woman can he reach the bottom of victimization.
The collective gaze and treatment Trelkowski is exposed to also pushes a certain identity on him, that of the outcast Simone Choule, taking away what he is and making him into what the collective sees or wants in him, thus forcefully though indirectly directing him into who it wants him to become and what it wants him to do: purge himself away by suicide. It is only when Trelkowski is preparing to jump out of his window that he sees approval and admiration amongst his co-tenants, who wait with joyous expectation for him to jump.
A desire to become a part of that collective, to become approved of, even if it means taking on the role of an objectionable outsider who fulfills his mission by self-annihilation, eventually rules supreme for Trelkowski and differentiates him from Carol. He professes opposition to and repulsion by the collective around him, but he does what it wants him to do. Dragging himself on his hands for the second jump, Trelkowski rebelliously says to horrified tenants: "So my jump was not good enough? So hers was better? Just wait—"
Trelkowski's male co-workers and even his sole friend Stella cannot share his victim's double vision, that is, cannot see the ways in which the other tenants - looking perfectly "normal" to them - subtly and sadistically victimize Trelkowski. At a point in film when he is still resisting the victimization imposed on him, Trelkowski sees both how the other tenants victimize him by trying to make him into Simone Choule on one hand, and how that assertion looks fantastic to outsiders like Stella on the other hand. In other words, Trelkowski experiences, though he cannot successfully communicate it to others, his own double vision. He tells Stella: "They are trying to make me into Simone Choule!", with the desperation of someone who knows he will not be believed and may, on the contrary, be thought deranged.
Precisely because it looks so preposterous, the victimization is not believed by those on the outside, much like the stories of the Holocaust or any other "unthinkable" horror were historically not believed by outsiders. Trelkowski's victim's double vision of the other tenants is thus confined to him only, and before him to Simone Choule. In time, this vision's universalizing effects engulf him much like Carol's engulfed her. When Trelkowski looks through a peep-hole at an unknown man outside the door of Stella's apartment, he sees Monsieur Zy (the landlord of Trelkowski's building and one of his main torturers), whereas we the viewers, on the other hand, are allowed a view of that man from the corridor, and see it is someone else, a man seen for the first time in the film, probably a bill collector going from door to door.
The universalizing vortex of Trelkowski's victim's double vision now sees new and unknown people as familiar and well-known victimizers, sees everyone as "one of them," as "ordinary" citizens who are perfectly capable of putting on Nazi uniforms and victimizing other people in the darkness of literal and metaphorical night of laws and ethics and humanity. The vision has again, as with Carol, spilled out from within one's head and appropriated reality in its own image.
A significant close-up of Le Locataire is a screaming mouth, an image which instantly brings to mind its rich history with probably the most well-known modern rendition being that of Norwegian expressionist painter Edward Munch's painting The Scream (1893), with its explosive tension between the exaggeratedly depicted scream of a man which breaks the whole space of a painting into undulating unresolved waves, and the utmost silence of the medium of painting as such. In The Tenant, the close-up of a screaming mouth appears for the first time close to the beginning of the film, when Trelkowski goes to visit Simone Choule in the hospital and gets to know Stella at Simone's bedside.
Simone is all bandaged except for her eyes and mouth. She looks at Trelkowski and Stella. Trelkowski spills some oranges on the floor, he and Stella start to talk, and then Simone lets out a horrible scream. The camera zooms in on her mouth open in a scream and with some bandages visible around it, and stops on a close-up of a dark cave-like interior of a mouth with a flaming red tongue. The scream still rings loudly as, visibly shaken, Trelkowski and Stella make their way out of the hospital.
The same close-up of a mouth in scream closes the film. Trelkowski, after a double suicide attempt, is in the hospital, all bandaged and looking exactly like Simone did at the beginning of the film. The camera looks at him and then we see his own point-of-view shot from a sharp low angle of his bed. He looks as Stella and Trelkowski approach his bed, Trelkowski spills some oranges, the two start to talk. And then he lets out a scream and the camera again zooms in on the mouth open in scream and stays in this close-up for the ending of the film.
Though audible in Polanski's film, Trelkowski's scream is not attended to or really ever heard, quite like that of a man in Munch's "silent" painting. In other words, Trelkowski's victim's double vision never gets successfully articulated by him or shared with anyone. This vision engulfs a victim and also transcends individual bodies, individual deaths, and time itself. There is no linear progression of time because time is not allowed to go on; consequently there is no exit because death is not the end but only the beginning of yet another cycle of victimization in a captured cyclical time of eternal returns. With no exit or end or possibility of ever sharing the horror he sees, a victim can only scream, and the drastic close-up of that mouth in scream stays with the viewer for a long time.
Sharing the victim's vision: Chinatown
Chinatown (1974), a Hollywood classic set in Los Angeles of the 1930s, stars Jack Nicholson as detective Jake Gittes, Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray, and John Huston as her father, the omnipotent Noah Cross. The case Gittes is investigating involves marital infidelity (a woman falsely introducing herself as Evelyn Mulwray hires him to look into the suspected affair of her husband, Hollis Mulwray, head of the LA Water Department; Gittes follows Hollis Mulwray and takes pictures of him embracing an unidentified younger woman), soon followed by the drowning of Hollis Mulwray, which to Gittes increasingly looks like murder disguised as accidental death, perpetrated by the real Evelyn Mulwray and motivated by her jealousy. The progression of Gittes' discovery parallels the progression of his own love affair with Evelyn.
It turns out at the end, however, that Gittes was completely wrong. It is not Evelyn but rather her father Noah Cross who killed Hollis Mulwray because of his opposition to the dam which will bring a fortune to Noah and ruin to the public good, and the young woman Hollis had been gently embracing was not his lover but was actually Evelyn's daughter Catherine conceived in the incestuous relationship her father Noah had had with her when she was 15 years old. Trying to protect Catherine from Noah who was now claiming this young daughter/grand-daughter of his for himself, Evelyn is killed and Catherine is taken away.
The film again foregrounds the seeing as the focus of the film. As with Repulsion or The Tenant, the camera and the film as a whole are led by and follow the main character's pair of eyes and see things from Gittes' perspective, rarely leaving a scene in which Gittes appears or the things which he sees. In opposition to the other two films, however, the film's / Gittes' pair of eyes is not that of a victim, but of someone who is attempting the objective seeing of things he is investigating, on the basis of which he intends to find out who is actually the victim and who the victimizer. Gittes' objective seeing is often not done by his bare eyes but rather by all kinds of technical devices including binoculars, mirrors, a camera, and photographs taken by others. There are repeated shots of his looking followed by matching shots of what he sees while looking.
The film's story also repeatedly emphasizes Gittes' mechanical, unbiased and shrewd "objective" seeing, and his ability to see through appearances and put aside his subjectivity. Even while falling in love with Evelyn Mulwray, he is capable of eventually concluding - together with us, the viewers who followed his every move and his every look - that he saw enough of the evidence proving that Evelyn indeed killed her husband Hollis Mulwray. The revelation of Gittes' mistake at the very end of the film is stunning, and it concerns the role of unacknowledged preconceived notions in the interpretation of objective images.
Together with Gittes (the "private eye"), we realize at once that he—and we—did not really see things we thought we saw. Rather, we saw things which we heavily interpreted following our own pre-existing concepts of processing certain images: a man embracing a young girl is seen as a man with an illicit young lover, a woman lying about her marital affairs is seen as a woman lying about her potentially criminal jealousy towards her husband. The mechanical devices of "objective seeing" did not provide accuracy because we still lacked a proper way of processing these objective images, a seemingly incongruous subjective quality that turns out to have been indispensable for Gittes' real seeing of the images in front of him—trust.
Evelyn asked him to trust her even without his knowing what her situation was all about, but Gittes decided that his "objective" knowledge—based largely on his objective imagery—was more conducive to finding the truth than any subjective trust. He was wrong, and as a consequence of his mistake Evelyn was killed and Catherine was taken away by Noah. Gittes' mechanical hyper-objective seeing proved unable to become truly objective without the addition of the delicately subjective ingredient of personal trust.
Chinatown is a film about an outsider's (Gittes') gradual development of a vision which will at the end match the victim's double vision of Evelyn Mulwray who saw both how her father was seen by the world (a respectable patriarch) and by herself ("very dangerous, very crazy"). (Evelyn's victim's double vision is not a universalizing one the way it is in Repulsion and The Tenant precisely because of the nature of victimization—only one man in the world can be seen as both one's father and an abuser— but it is universalizing in its complete destruction of Evelyn's ability to have a "normal" relationship with any man.)
Though it shares the overall concerns of the victim's double vision with Repulsion and Le Locataire, and also the specific concerns of seeing and the "eye" with Repulsion, as well as the aural part of the film's closing scream (by Catherine) with Le Locataire, Chinatown is a very different film from those other two and enacts a radical departure from their way of dealing with the victim's double vision. As opposed to the two films where the victims give up attempts to communicate with others and end up sealed within their own vision, Chinatown moves in the direction of a victim's sharing of her double vision. Even though Evelyn dies at the end (by being shot, tellingly, through the eye), and Gittes is defeated, she manages to pass on to him the truth about herself and her victimizer Noah, and her victim's double vision will live on in Gittes.
Chinatown thus leaves a space in which the victim's vision overwhelms the victim so that she can only become murderous or suicidal, and explores a potentially positive tension on the border between the victim and the outside world, where the outsider genuinely tries to grasp what is happening, and the victim finally shares with an outsider her unique knowledge. The emphasis is not on the subjectified victim's vision, conveyed by the expressionistic cinematography of the other two films, but rather on the attempts of an outsider to see things as objectively as possible and find out who the victim is.
The film thus employs "realistic" cinematography (though highly stylized to bring in the retro atmosphere of the classic film noir thriller) which enacts a significant step in Polanski's overall progression from the more expressionistic towards the more realistic cinema, even though Chinatown was made two years prior to Le Locataire.
While enacting a significant new moment of dealing with the victim's double vision and being included in this essay for that reason, Chinatown is the only one of the films discussed here which does not have the same close-up shot of the part of a body framing the film. Rather, the beginning close-up opening the film—of a photograph metonymically standing for the most objective seeing possible, taken by Jack Gittes' associates—is answered at the end by the last shot of the film, a long take of the scene of Evelyn's murder in which the camera moves back and upwards into the air, as if the film itself now assumes for the first time the omniscient gaze above it all and comments on Gittes' "close up" and "objective" mechanical seeing which caused Evelyn's death.
While the original script by Robert Towne had Evelyn survive and Noah get caught, Polanski fiercely fought for the present ending in which Evelyn dies. Only such an ending could put the right blame for the final destruction of Evelyn on Gittes, and specifically on his lack of trust which made his mechanistic seeing fatally false. The victim and the outsider started a process of mutual aproachment and attempted to share the victim's double vision, but this could not be achieved in time to save lives with the victim who was ultimately too weak and the outsider who had no trust.
The hands: Death and the Maiden
The films which Polanski made after the Chinatown and Le Locataire follow a trajectory of going from more expressionistic aesthetics towards a more realistic one; Death and the Maiden (1994) is a film that revisits the issue of the victim's double vision and crafts its own unique response to it. Taking place in an unidentified Latin American country, the film revolves around a woman's attempt to share her victim's double vision with the person closest to her, her husband. Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) claims that Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley), the likeable physician who gave a ride to her husband, attorney Pablo Escobar (Stuart Wilson), when his car broke down, is the same man who raped her and monitored her torture some 15 years ago, at the time of the rule of the military junta.
Although Miranda looks truly believable in the protestations of his innocence, Paulina controls the highly dramatic situation with the help of her gun and stages successive traps for Miranda, one of which he eventually falls into, revealing himself at last as having indeed been the villain Paulina accused him of being, and revealing her as having indeed been his victim. Paulina keeps wanting Miranda to confess (which he does at the end), rather than only be proclaimed or even proven guilty, because only such a confession can affirm her victim's double vision and make it apparent to others—her husband and us the viewers.
The aesthetic of Death and the Maiden is a realist one of "just showing" what is in front of the camera, though the space in front of the camera is highly dramatized by the expressive use of light and colors. Different from Repulsion or Le Locataire, though, these never show the state of the protagonist's mind but are always realistically motivated: the house's electricity is cut off due to a storm so candles provide a source of light, making the space vibrant with moving reddish-brown shadows and dark-light contrasts within the house set against the cold blues of the outside deck and night sky. The camera is subdued and realistic for the most part but at some moments gets into a more expressionistic mode, as in the scene where Paulina is pressing a gun to Miranda's head. The high angle point-of-view shot from her perspective is followed by a very low point-of-view shot from Miranda's perspective, looking from below at Paulina pressing the gun to his head.
Such expressive touches intensify the drama of an already highly-charged script and hark back stylistically to early expressionistic Polanski, but they are never used as they had been then, to give a glimpse of a character's inner world. We, the audience, are never allowed to see inside any of the character's heads, as that would destroy the realistic position of a judge which this film requires us to take, a judge who does not know what happened and has no access to the character's intimate knowledge or vision of the past, yet is asked to make up his or her mind on the basis of what the involved characters themselves are saying and showing.
The film opens with a quick close-up of a hand bowing a cello, followed by a long shot of a string quartet playing Schubert's "Death and the Maiden;" the film ends with the long take of the same long shot of the string quartet's performance, this time allowing the performance to proceed to its end. Opening and closing the film, this shot foregrounds two things: the hands in action or working hands (the playing hands of the musicians), and music.
Paulina herself is portrayed as a very "hands on" woman who uses her hands well and often. She is highly intelligent, but her schemes can be executed only with the help of her hands. Constantly doing something, Paulina skillfully carves a chicken, eats with her hands, pushes Miranda's car off the cliff, ties and gags him, fights with him, even holds his penis when he needs to urinate, and firmly holds the gun all the time. It is only close to the very end of the film, after hearing Miranda's confession, that Paulina stashes her gun away in her skirt and that her hands become unoccupied—for the first time in the entire film. And during the last sequence of the film, taking place in the concert hall, when Paulina and her husband see Miranda and he looks back at them, Paulina does not say anything but she squeezes her husband's hand in her own.
In her struggle to reveal her victim's double vision to her husband, Paulina's employment of her hands is joined with her desire to claim her favorite music. Schubert was her favorite composer until Miranda played "Death and the Maiden" during the times he raped her; hearing that piece afterwards made her sick. "It's time I reclaim my Schubert," she announces. By seizing the opportunity to finally confront Miranda, by winning her fight and thus asserting her seemingly insane victim's double vision as the truthful one, and by not becoming a victimizer herself—she lets Miranda live—Paulina reclaims her favorite composer. She also gets out of the universalizing effects of this double vision: whereas before this night Paulina often wrongly recognized, in one or the other chance encounter, the doctor who had raped her so many years ago, now that she has finally found out who the doctor actually is she has freed herself from such universalizing tendencies.
Looking back from the perspective of Death and the Maiden on the earlier films, we notice that Repulsion's Carol and Le Locataire's Trelkowski are characters who, unlike Paulina, have nothing that is theirs, nothing that they do out of their own interest or passion. Carol's dissolution, significantly, starts not only with her falling into her unfocused gaze but also with her stopping to use her hands. After zooming out of the close up of her eye at the very beginning of the film, the camera shows Carol's whole body and reveals that she has just stopped working: dressed in a white beautician's uniform, she is merely holding a customer's hand and is not doing anything with it. Later on in the film her hands will be increasingly deployed in activities away from any usual activity—Carol does not cook but only eats sugar cubes, or she irons with her iron unplugged; her hands are employed, when at all, in acts of aggression, injuring the customer's hand with cuticle scissors, cutting off the rabbit's head, or killing Collin and then the landlord.
Trelkowski is similarly deprived of anything that is his and that he does; he walks with hands in his pockets, and he takes his hand out only to slap an unknown young boy. Gradually he starts using his hands only to dress up and make up like Simone Choule, and eventually to drag himself up to his apartment with the help of his hands for the second jump. In both Repulsion and Le Locataire, the eye of the victim's double vision takes over and their hands degenerate, while the hands of the perpetrators grab at their bodies, multiply and grow from the walls in Repulsion or else come in through the window at night in Le Locataire.
Chinatown's Evelyn attempts to fight (or at least to run away), in order to save something truly precious to her, her daughter Catherine, and while her hand through much of the film only holds a cigarette, she does gradually emerge from such a passivity when saving Gittes from Noah's thugs, dressing Gittes' nose wound, or holding hysterical Catherine later on in the film, as well as in her final and unsuccessful use of the gun. But Paulina is stronger, and she has more things that are hers and that help her: proven political commitment, a past desire to be a doctor, a love of music, a deep connection with a man who loves her and whom she loves.
These things work for her and keep her sane; her desire to reclaim her music props her up for her fight with Miranda, and her ability to use her hands well makes her win that fight. Her husband, the lawyer Escobar, manages to share her victim's double vision because he suspends his rational disbelief in what she says, and starts to trust her even before knowing the whole truth; thanks to his trust he finally obtains an outsider's truly objective view and avoids the mistake which the rational Jack Gittes made in Chinatown. All in all, Death and the Maiden was Polanski's most positive handling of the issue of the victim's double vision to date. The Pianist will return to the interplay of this vision, hands, and music in a different way.
Resolution in the hands: The Pianist
Prefaced with archival black-and-white footage of the city of Warsaw in 1939—bustling, open streets and squares full of people, multi-directed movement, traffic, life, and light, all accompanied by Chopin's music—the film then opens with a close-up of the hands of a pianist playing the music we have been hearing, in a shot bathed in warm light. The close-up lasts for some time, and then the camera moves back to reveal a slim young man playing a piano in a recording studio. The story of The Pianist is based on the true story of Warsaw Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpiłman (played by Adrien Brody), a talented Jewish concert pianist who stays in Warsaw even after the German 1939 attack and occupation, and together with his family experiences increasing levels of degradation and violence inflicted by the occupying forces on the Jewish population.
Szpiłman avoids deportation to the camps and works for a while with a work brigade, and then escapes from the Ghetto and takes refuge in successive hiding places in Warsaw thanks to the help of the Polish underground. From the windows of his hiding places he sees the Ghetto uprising of 1943 and the later Warsaw uprising of 1944, and watches them both being put down by the Germans, surviving rebels hunted down and shot on the spot or else watched as they jump like human torches from burning buildings.
He then witnesses the final destruction of Warsaw: counting over a million inhabitants before the war, the city was bombed, fully evacuated, and almost burned to the ground by flame-throwers. Szpiłman finally hides in the ruins of one building where he meets a German officer who does not kill or report him, but rather helps him survive: Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) brings food to Szpiłman and keeps his secret until the end of the German occupation, when the Germans retreated and Soviets entered Warsaw (Hosenfeld himself died in a Soviet POW camp in 1952.) The film ends with the scene of Szpiłman in concert after the war; the camera pans the orchestra and the audience and ends with Szpiłman at the piano, then goes into a final and very long close-up of his hands.
The cinematic form is here elaborate and fine-tuned as ever in Polanski's films, but in a subdued and subtle manner of distanced realism that seems to be the very opposite of the flamboyant expressionism of Repulsion and Le Locataire. There is none of the extrovert or showy use of film techniques, the flashes of which appear even in the Death and the Maiden. With regard to The Pianist, Polanski himself kept insisting that it was crucial that all the crew members and "especially me, the director, be humble, resist the desire to show their artistry, their skill, and just tell the story." Main actor Adrien Brody was also directed to make his performance "very flat."
This technical humbleness resulted in the realistic, at times almost documentary, feel of the film: as if a camera was simply placed in the places where Szpiłman was, or else, as if his own eyes were the camera, which simply recorded what was in front of it, moving closer or farther in order to better see a scene rather than make a rhetorical statement.
The eyes of the film are largely Szpiłman's eyes, and the realism of the film is thus also Szpiłman's realism, a particular way of the seeing of things around him which did not only make him, once he survived, a unique chronicler of the events that not many survived to tell about, but which also—and before anything else—helped him to survive in the first place. This realistic seeing of things is present in the film's—and Szpiłman's—"flat" recording of unprecedented physical violence, but also in the understated, almost distant ("just tell the story as it was") recording of the loss of space and the endurance of time, two crucial aspects of Szpiłman's victimization, as well as in Szpiłman's realistic seeing of Captain Wilm Hosenfeld.
Regarding the violence, two scenes should suffice to depict the film's mode of seeing and showing it. Walking through the Ghetto one evening, Szpiłman hears the cries of a child and helps a screaming boy to get out from under the ghetto wall; the boy is being savagely beaten from the other side of the wall by a German soldier whom Szpiłman (and we) cannot see, but can only hear his cursing and yelling; Szpiłman gets the boy out and embraces him, but the boy dies. The camera takes in the boy's image for a few moments, allows our recognition of what happened and the resultant shock of despair and impotence, but does not stay on the scene long enough for us to fully develop our emotional reaction or even see the boy's face better; instead, it gets up and moves along with Szpiłman himself.
In another scene, when the doors of the train cattle cars are shut on the people from the Ghetto, including Szpiłman's family, and we see a close-up of a massive iron bar which locks the car from the outside, the length of that shot is again just long enough to give the information but not long enough to make us dwell too much on it. If he is to survive, Szpiłman cannot allow his eyes to watch the horror too long, or be overwhelmed or stopped by it; instead, he must move on, and the relative shortness of this shot articulates this ability to see violence and death realistically but then go on.
The same management of time—long enough to give clear information but not to allow the swelling of the resulting emotion—formats the many sequences of killing or death in the ghetto. Szpiłman's realistic seeing records things, but the recorded things are not allowed to stop or affect that realistic seeing, which is crucial for the practices of survival.
Regarding the loss of space, the construction of the ghetto walls marks irreversibly the temporal point from which the space will be shrunk beyond recognition. In the earlier part of the film, for example, when Szpiłman meets an "Aryan" Pole, Dorota, his unfulfilled romantic interest, and tells her that they can only stand and talk given that even benches and parks are off limits for Jews, the shot framing their faces is still an in-depth one that shows the sheer existence of the opulence of space, of the trams and people passing in the closer and farther distance behind them: even though much of the space is now inaccessible to Szpiłman, at least his eye can take the space in and remind oneself of its existence.
But after being moved to the Ghetto and the construction of the Ghetto walls, in the scene when a deranged lady asks Szpiłman about the whereabouts of her husband in a Ghetto street and the camera circles around them the way they would dance around each other in a very constrained space, the camera's circular motion reveals the Ghetto walls on all sides and the loss of any openness or depth of space. The walls are everywhere, pushing, as it were, the multitudes of people from the back so that they fight in the grossly reduced space right in front of the camera for their piece of food or work or space, and for their survival.
There are almost no long shots except to show rivers of people traversing the bridge between the Small and the Large Ghetto. Most of the shots are medium distance, showing just the upper parts of the bodies, as if a camera—or rather Szpiłman himself seeing it all—does not have any space to back into from all these people. Similar shots with no depth to them show the crowded and small interiors of the Ghetto's living quarters, and contrast starkly with the film's early deep-focus shots of Szpiłman's original apartment displaying both lots of space and lots of material objects. When, for example, early on in the film the family discusses how to best hide the valuables, the father is in the medium-shot distance, pulling the surface off of the table in front of him, Szpiłman is tuning his father's violin in a long-shot distance, and there is also the third, very back plane, which is the back wall of their spacious apartment marked by a painting.
A change from such existence of depth and space both in the public and private realm to the gradual reduction and finally complete elimination of that space spells out the reduction of potentials to act and live in that space, and finally to live at all. But as with the recording of the violence, this relentless and murderous taking away of the space is shown through subdued cinematic means, matter-of-factly and without undue rhetorical emphasis, articulating the realistic and almost distanced seeing by the eyes of the film—or the eyes of Władysław Szpiłman.
The Pianist's handling of time caused some criticism; a few reviewers saw the part of the film dealing with Szpiłman after his escape from the Ghetto, when he is almost completely on his own, hiding in one place after another and then for a long stretch at the end having no interaction with anyone at all, as being too long, too drawn-out and monotonous.
There is too much time, they say, when nothing happens, and all we see is Szpiłman trying to find some food or simply sitting in a chair all wrapped-up in tattered blankets, often in silence and with no background music, shot in almost real time; a man goes through the cupboards, pulls down one drawer, then the next, then the next, finds nothing, goes on. Or he takes a little pot and pours the water from it into a glass, drinks it up, all shown without any cinematic commotion or emotion—though these are his last drops of water—without expressive camera moves or acting: there is only realistic sound and no music, and there is not even much of a focus on the man's face which, when we do briefly see it, does not show too much emotion either.
I would argue that the use of time in this part of the film is strikingly effective: we need this "slow time", the relative abundance of time in which nothing or very little happens, because only by getting a feel of that enormous and largely amorphous, empty time, can we somewhat access Szpiłman's struggle—not only against Germans, hunger, and cold, but also, and crucially, against time. Szpiłman did not know there was a good end in store for him, and his day-to-day survival on the off chance of an improbable delivery looked interminable and must have surely at times looked pointless. His solitary struggle was against what must have seemed like an endless time, and his major achievement was not only managing to survive all that time, but also managing to keep his realistic vision intact.
Such slow time destroys characters in Polanski's early films like Repulsion or Le Locataire. It is the combination of imagined or the real threat of violence, slow time, and closed, claustrophobic space, when the characters are alone in their apartments for a long time, that causes their inner unraveling, marked by the increasingly deranged visions of the experienced or feared victimization. It is when a person is alone in a hostile environment for some time that his mind starts to give in and the view of his surroundings starts to be increasingly non-realistic, reflecting more inner character dissolution than outer realities.
Szpiłman, however, stays whole; the invasion of time does not destroy him. Significantly there are even no flash-backs of memories of his happier past, images of his family or Dorota. Throughout this long slow time in which not much happens, Szpiłman keeps seeing only what is in front of his eyes: walls, empty spaces, ruins, potential hiding places, potential food storages, potential places of danger.
Even though the film's "pair of eyes" is the pair of eyes of the victim, nothing is deformed by his seeing as he keeps perceiving the things the way they are, "no more, no less." In other words, a subjective vision of a victim in this film is not, as it were, subjectified, but is rather undistorted and realistic. Repulsion's close-up of a sprouted and withered potato, showing Carol's state of mind, is here replaced with a close-up of a similarly sprouting potato, accompanied in a few seconds with Szpiłman's hands which carefully take off the sprouts and then cut the potato in two; a sprouting potato is not any more a sign of Carol's taking her hands off of reality and the still-life metonymic symbol of an unhinged mind, but rather an image of extreme hunger.
And the image of Le Locataire's Trelkowski sitting for a long time in his arm-chair, quietly contemplating his victimization and becoming increasingly deranged, is here replaced with the image of Szpiłman also sitting in a chair in an almost completely destroyed room at night, and cooking soup out of some scraps of food on the fire which he himself made. When he leans forward in his chair to scoop out and taste the soup, the image is not that of a man who is falling apart but rather that of a man who is collecting himself by making his home out of a thoroughly alien space.
Most importantly for this essay, the victim's realistic vision breaks down the effects of the universalization of the victim's double vision, which sees everyone as capable of doing horrible deeds, and, in this particular case, all the German soldiers as murderers. Szpiłman survives not only because Hosenfeld finds him, but also and more importantly because he, Szpiłman, is still capable of seeing clearly and realistically, capable of seeing—after all he has been through and seen—that this German soldier is a human being who can be trusted and who will risk his career and potentially his life to help Szpiłman survive.
Szpiłman bases his trust on his realistic seeing of Captain Hosenfeld. He, and the film along with him, sees Hosenfeld for the first time as he appears with his hands in his pockets, standing upright but relaxed, his face wearing an almost forgotten (at that point of the film) beauty of an engaged and thoughtful expression. Hosenfeld talks economically but with ordinary human respect, using a normal tone of voice and employing, for the first time in the film, a polite German "Sie" instead of the familiar "du" used to address the second person.
Most importantly, he is the one who listens to Szpiłman by listening to his playing, and this is the first time in the entire film that a piece of music is allowed to go from the beginning to the end. The intensity of Hosenfeld's listening is brought out by two things: firstly, by hearing Szpiłman's playing of Chopin's piece as a perfect performance which we hear in the film, rather than what realistically had to be a rather weak playing given Szpiłman's condition at the time; and secondly, the subjective attitude of Hosenfeld's listening is visually brought out by the ray of sun that adorns Szpiłman while he is playing for him (the ray of sun in which Hosenfeld sees Szpiłman), and which will only moments later underscore Hosenfeld signing papers in his office.
This visual touch could easily look fake and kitschy in another cinematic environment, but in this film and at this place—after some hour and a half of bleakness—it rings true. The single ray of light now replaces all of the technical and stylistic devices which had articulated the subject's point of view in Polanski's earlier films. This light is the one from the paintings of the Annunciation: Hosenfeld looks at Szpiłman and sees and hears not the emaciated and terrified human scarecrow touching the key-board after years of non-playing, but rather a fellow human being playing music of great beauty.
And a similar ray of light marking Hosenfeld in the next sequence shows him the way he is realistically seen by Szpiłman—and by the film—as a man of true humanity who will both save Szpiłman and help him transcend his victims' double vision. After the end of the war, Szpiłman turns to look at the setting sun while searching for and thinking of Hosenfeld, and this looking at the sun reiterates the connection "by light" between these two people.
Szpiłman's realistic seeing of Hosenfeld saved his life: the victim's realistic vision proved indispensable for his survival. As asserted above, making The Pianist in the emotionally and cinematically subdued, almost distant "realist" mode, shows the way in which Szpiłman survived. And what does Szpiłman do to have and maintain this realistic vision? Well, what he does do is not shown many times, maybe only two or three times altogether: he plays the piano even when there is no piano to be played on for years because he either has no instrument or else cannot make any noise, so he moves his fingers above the piano without touching the keys, or he plays with his hands in the air while sitting in a chair in an empty cold room in the midst of the city ruins.
Invoking a great love of this pianist, music, the hands keep a personality whole; they resist attacks of madness and self-destruction. The eye alone, through which he sees what is going on around him, would not save him, especially once loved ones got killed and there is no telling if the nightmare of hunger, fear, and solitude, will ever end, and how. Thus, the eyes which Polanski has finally found in The Pianist are the eyes that are helped by the hands that keep a man together, so that the passion he has, the music, can prop him up from within, can counter-act the images of horror, can fill him up and not let the horror take up all of the space inside him.
Sharing the emphasis on the employment of hands and music with Death and the Maiden (both films begin and end with the shots of playing hands), The Pianist does not use hands to prove a victim's double vision to the outsider, the way Paulina did. Here, the hands help the eyes to see better, which means more realistically and more truthfully.
When one sees realistically, one realizes that the whole universalizing premise of the victim's "double vision" was wrong. One sees that not everyone turns into a monster, that there are people who resist. Not everyone is susceptible to becoming a murderer; some people have potential to become saviors rather than victimizers, and can be trusted with one's life. Thus the one trustworthy German Captain is seen, as Szpiłman puts it in his memoir, as "the one human being wearing German uniform..." Here in The Pianist, the close-up of the hands playing replaced Repulsion's close-up of the eye looking or Le Locataire's close-up of the mouth in scream because the hands—what we love, what we do, what makes us ourselves—are necessary for the eyes to see better, to see realistically, so that a person can transcend the victim's double vision of seeing everyone as a potential victimizer, which corners one into a position where only screaming or killing or dying is possible.
Seeing the formal journey of Polanski's films, marked by the change from the more expressionist, subjectivized vision of the earlier films to the more objective realistic texture of the later ones and especially The Pianist, and accompanied by a telling symbolic change in the choice of human body close-ups that begin and end and thus metonymically define the film, is crucial for the understanding of the development of Polanski's films' dealing with victim's double vision, one of these films' most obsessive and productive concerns.
This vision is what many of Polanski's films are all about, what they are struggling with, what the defeats they reveal and the victories they point at as possible relate to. From the silent eye to the screaming mouth to the performing hands, from the expressionist to the realist, this journey is of supreme importance not only to those who have admired and been inspired by Polanski's cinema, but also to all of those who have shared in one way or another a victim's double vision, and seen their neighbors or friends or colleagues "turn savage" on them, to all of those who thought they can never forget the metamorphosis humans are capable of, the lack of trust this burned into them.
Do your thing with your own two hands and keep it up, Polanski's films say modestly and yet victoriously at the end of the same search; just keep it up. Szpiłman did his music, I do my filmmaking, you do whatever it is that you are passionate about. It will help you see things realistically for what they are, no more, no less, and deal with them accordingly, and, in the end, you may survive—both physically and spiritually—and bring some good to the world.
Gordana P Crnković
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