The Pianist (2002)
Directed by Roman Polanski

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Jewish pianist, is confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, suffers horribly, escapes, and endeavors to survive the Second World War.

Roman Polanski's The Pianist is a well acted, competently made, but occasionally hackneyed film. The director, by depicting the protagonist's struggle to survive amidst staggering cruelty and violence, does manage to create a sense of tension focused on him, and Adrien Brody's performance is generally admirable, although, perhaps, a little too maudlin at times. The production values are high, and the script is decent, if uninspired. Unfortunately, the film is not distinctive, visually or narratively, and its emotive impact is impeded by a number of faults.

Characterizations, for example, are frequently overdone and cartoonish. Sympathetic characters are kind, suffering victims. Unsympathetic characters are either cruel, brutish fiends or cruel, selfish collaborators. Instead of presenting the viewer with a vision of fascinating subtleties, Polanski, by failing to demonstrate much finesse, has fashioned a far less interesting film dominated by absolute contrasts. The moviegoer is thus shown a world divided between evil men who perform acts of absolute brutality and the good and innocent victims against whom those acts are committed.

Having conjured up such a vision, Polanski attempts to manipulate the viewer by crudely contrasting the decent actions of the good with the crimes of the wicked, seeking thereby to elicit sympathy for the former and revulsion for the latter. If the director intended to evoke horror at violence by showing us its effects, he has, by denying whatever it is that lies at the heart of human nature and prompts us to commit such acts, greatly weakened the impact his movie could have had. Instead, we are told that violence is done by some group of other persons, different from us, who engage in such savagery. Violence is trivialized into something these animals do. Apparently, we need not worry about ourselves.

Moreover, the stark contrasts with which the director presents the viewer are created by means of devices which frequently do not work well with other details he has included in his film. Exaggerated or stylized elements tend to jar with naturalistic elements in a given work of art. The juxtaposition of realistic with nonrealistic details can, therefore, be effective in heightening the impact made by one or both of these. When, however, an artist strives to create a naturalistic work but includes stylized elements as though they were realistic, he diminishes the impact of both the naturalistic and the transmundane elements employed, since the stylized elements are not, in fact, naturalistic.

Polanski's nonrealistic division of the world between the good and the evil would not necessarily have been bothersome in a nonrealistic film. Even in a realistic work, such a presentation of the world could be employed to emphasize a given character's perspectives or to provide a contrast with the realities of ordinary experience. When, however, such a division is presented as though it were a representation of the world as it is, its lack of reality contrasts with the reality being ascribed to it and diminishes the emotive impact of the work as a whole. Had Polanski's film been an attempt to show the subjective perspectives of the victims of the Nazi genocide, rather than an objective portrayal of the external world, the nonrealistic devices he employs might have been successful, but, by portraying a simplified, stylized world as though it were the real world, he not only diminishes the reality of the persons and events portrayed but also lends a sense of falsity to the work as a whole.

Polanski does, however, occasionally ameliorate these distracting contrasts. The Jewish guard employed by the Germans who helps the protagonist escape from being sent to a death camp is shown as being more complex than a simple villain. The German officer who helps him later in the film is also handled sympathetically, and his presence reminds the viewer that the director is not asserting that all Germans are evil. The existence of such characters prevents The Pianist from descending into mediocrity. The complexities of life are not brilliantly handled by Polanski, but his excesses are tempered by occasional moments of subtlety.

Nevertheless, if, instead of portraying the German soldiers committing the atrocities shown as evil monsters, the director had presented them as human beings very much like other people, he would have given a veracity to their depiction in keeping with the realistic nature of the film, and this would have increased the horror evoked. A world in which most anyone can descend to the most degraded brutality is far more frightening than one in which decent people incapable of such acts must defend themselves against monsters who are nothing but savages. Even without any exploration of the complexities of the personalities of the German characters or of the persons collaborating with them, who are not, after all, the focus of the movie, The Pianist would have been far more affecting than it is had the director shown greater subtlety in his handling of the characters upon whom he does focus.

I will grant that making a subtle movie about the crimes of the Nazis must be nearly impossible, and I will also grant that Polanski has, perhaps, been more successful in doing so than has any other director. Nevertheless, the film does tend to oversimplify things while presenting itself as a realistic portrayal of the events it depicts. In a sense, I do not so much find fault with Polanski as point out what I wish he had done. I do not believe I am being unfair in doing so, as what distinguishes a great movie from a good is not merely an absence of flaws but the presence of the most sublime virtues.

Despite the movie's shortcomings, Polanski does arouse sympathy for those suffering at the hands of one of the Twentieth Century's most brutal regimes. We do care about what happens to the protagonist and to those being victimized around him. We also experience feelings of horror at the acts of inhumanity the director depicts and feelings of heroism when we see how countless people bravely endure staggeringly vicious treatment.

Unfortunately, Polanski frequently resorts to manipulative strategies and oversimplifications to elicit responses from the viewer, and his obvious attempts to do so diminish the quality of the film. As a consequence, while The Pianist is not a bad movie, it is not a masterpiece either.

Review by Keith Allen

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