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The Pianist & Interview with Adrien Brody

June 13, 2006

Since I’ll be away until Friday and unable to post, I’ll be posting one or two old reviews from my college or San Diego Jewish Journal days. The following is a review of The Pianist integrated with an interview with Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann. This interview and review was done before the movie had seen a wide release, and well before it won all those Oscars. I should also note that Brody and Kretschmann couldn’t have been more dissimilar.

Kretschmann was jovial, friendly and admitted that one of the reasons he became an actor was to meet girls. Brody, on the other hand, was brooding and soft-spoken. When one of the other journalists in the roundtable interview asked to take some pictures with his digital camera, Brody said no, saying, “I’m not ready for that yet.”

This article was first published in the January 2003 issue of the San Diego Jewish Journal.

The Pianist is not a story of heroism. Its star, Adrien Brody (The Thin Red Line), is the first to admit that.

“It’s much more truthful if your protagonist isn’t a particular hero,” the soft-spoken, painfully serious young actor says. “We have to remain true to the original story, and this man [Wladyslaw Szpilman] wrote his memoirs four years after he went through it and didn’t make himself a hero. He just communicated what happened, omitting blame, omitting sentimentality.”

Ultimately, Szpilman’s straightforward communication of his survival as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Warsaw – and director Roman Polanski’s slavishly faithful recreation of it – is the film’s greatest strength, and its greatest weakness.

Szpilman is one of the most talented and beloved pianists and composers in Polish history. He was musical director of the state radio station after World War II, and many of his songs became popular standards in Poland.
Before the war, he played piano on radio, and indeed the film opens with bombs falling just as he begins playing Chopin’s “Nocturne in C# Minor” on-air. After Germany took the city, Szpilman and his family were subject to the demeaning Nuremburg Laws, which seem downright enlightened relative to the Final Solution of the war’s latter days.

They were soon evicted from their homes and forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, where 600,000 Jews were forced into a few city blocks. Szpilman made a meager living, and supported his family, by playing piano at a bar where black marketers and collaborators gathered. Just as his family was about to board a train to the concentration camps, a Jewish policeman, Itzhak Heller, saved him from near-certain death.
He survived the rest of his days at first as one of a handful of Jewish laborers allowed to remain in the ghetto, then in hiding among the Poles and Germans, and finally as a starving, homeless shell of a man running from building to bombed-out building. In the war’s waning days, he was found by a German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, who, for reasons the movie never makes clear, helped Szpilman hide and brought him food.

As with all Polanski movies, the craftsmanship and attention to detail are incredible. His recreation of the indignities suffered by Jews at the hands of Nazis is powerful. One scene in particular sticks in my mind: a desperately hungry man mugs an old woman for her pot of porridge, but in the ensuing struggle, she drops it. Seeing the porridge spilled on the street, the man pauses for a moment as if he’s going to run. Then he hits the ground and licks up the porridge off the filthy cobblestone street, as the old woman yanks at his jacket.

The first half of the movie, which tells of Szpilman’s and his family’s life in the ghetto, is full of these sharply defined, horrific set pieces. But we’ve seen these kinds of scenes done before, in movies like Schindler’s List and Sunshine. Because Szpilman is never more than a passive witness to what goes on, it is never clear why we’re watching his story over any other. Indeed, there is nothing remarkable about Szpilman: he is not brave, he is not indignant, he is not particularly Jewish – he is just sad and hungry, like everyone else.

It is only in the second half, when Szpilman is saved by the collaborator Itzhak, that the movie tells a unique, if not extraordinary, story of its own.

In the hour that follows this inexplicable stroke of luck, Szpilman is the ultimate survivor. To its credit, the movie never makes the claim that Szpilman’s wiles save him; if anything, he is presented as the luckiest man alive. In one scene, he is locked inside a “safehouse” apartment as a tank sets its sight directly on his building. Only because the tank fortuitously blows a hole in the wall between his apartment and his neighbors’ does he escape death.

Brody’s work in the second half is a powerful portrait of solitude. For nearly an hour, he doesn’t speak; he only watches, eats and runs.
Brody had to winnow himself down to 130 pounds, learn Chopin and nail a Polish dialect to play the part. He explains how he prepared: “The first thing that occurred to me was, ‘Why don’t you eliminate a lot of material things from your life, so you don’t have a safe place to go, even in your own mind?’ So before I left [New York], I sold my car, gave up my apartment, got rid of my phones.”

He says he didn’t draw from his Polish Jewish ancestry, but that his background gave him a “connection” to the material. “I feel it’s such a profound loss for so many people that if you’re remotely empathetic, and you do the preparation, then you don’t have to have any Jewish heritage to relate.”
His performance is mindful of Tom Hanks’s masterful turn in Cast Away, where the character’s only driving force is survival. In that sense, the film gives a full picture of survival, making sure the viewer understands that luck, good connections and simply not dying are far more important than resourcefulness. The film’s final act tells the story of Szpilman’s relationship with Hosenfeld, played by Thomas Kretschmann (U-571), a German himself. Their relationship is truly unlike anything we’ve seen before. When they meet, Szpilman is roaming about an abandoned house with what appears to be a can of canned watermelon, searching for something to open it with. When Hosenfeld sees him, he inspects him with his eyes and asks him who he is and what he does. “I am a pianist,” Szpilman says. Hosenfeld points him to a dusty grand piano in the well-appointed house, sits down, and commands him to play.

Szpilman’s hands hesitate to touch the keys, as if years of living like an animal have reduced them simply to tools of survival. But he proceeds to play a beautiful, and long, Chopin piece. As the camera luxuriously sweeps around Brody, it’s clear the scene is meant to be the emotional height of the film, and many in the crew cried while it was being filmed. But I didn’t find it particularly moving, perhaps because the film never does a great job of establishing Szpilman’s relationship to his piano-playing. Only the opening scene gives a hint of his emotional connection to music; just before his family moves to the ghetto, he is more willing than many in his family to part with his piano for money. While it may not be the movie’s intent, for Szpilman, his piano-playing seems to be little more than his job. Since we never know what he gained from playing the piano, we have little sense of what he’s lost by not playing it. So when he is finally reunited with the instrument, it seems less like the reconsummation of a deep love, and more like an employee returning from vacation (well not quite, but you get the idea.)

Hosenfeld’s reaction to Szpilman is fascinating, however. We never know if Hosenfeld is saving Szpilman because of his humanity, or simply because he plays a mean piano.

In that way, until the end, the movie’s world is not one of saviors and villains. It is about flawed, normal people trying to be good where they can – and sometimes taking what they can get. As Kretschmann says, “There is not just the good Jew and bad German, there’s the good Jew, and the mediocre Jew and the good German and the bad German, and the good Pole and the bad Pole.”

If “The Pianist” is intended to be a film about the transcendent and humanizing nature of music, then it fails. But on a different level, as really the first Holocaust drama to show Jews, Germans and Poles in all their moral ambivalence, then it is a qualified success.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2008 12:08 am

    thanks

  2. August 16, 2014 8:29 pm

    I can remember when this film came out I was adamantly against seeing it. I had my preconceived notions that it would be some other heroic Jewish Holocaust film where good triumphs over evil and in between we would see some brutal atrocities committed by the Germans to add some flavour.

    How wrong I was.

    This is one of the best films I have ever seen and what it did to me I cannot describe in words. But in a nutshell, it moved me, made me cry, made me feel like I was in the Polish ghetto in 1940, and ultimately made me kiss the sidewalks as I walked out of the theater and thanked God that I live in the free society that I do.

    Roman Polanski has proved that he is a great director with films like Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby but this is his crowning achievement. I think the fact that this won the awards that it did at this years Oscars goes a long way to validate the brilliance of this film. I believe that the Oscar’s are rigged for the most part and films and actresses and such win based more on their pedigree or business associations than anything else, so when it won best actor and director and adapted screenplay this year, it tells you that it should have won best picture but the Weinsteins seem to have a spell over everyone, hence a charlatan like Chicago takes top prize. Sorry for the digression here but when you compare a “film” like Chicago to a masterpiece like The Pianist, there really is one clear cut winner. They handed out the statue to the wrong movie.

    The Pianist follows up and coming piano player Wlad Spielzman from his days as a local hero to a prisoner of war to his time in the ghettos, surviving only by the kindness of strangers. I think many people have touched on this before but what makes this film so amazing and well crafted is because Spielzman is a man that we can all relate to. He is not a hero, he is not a rebel and he is not a kamikaze type that wants and lusts after revenge. He is a simple man that is doing everything in his power to stay alive. He is a desperate man and fears for his life and wants to stay as low as he can. Only from the succor he receives from others does he manage to live and breathe and eat and hide. And this is how I related to him. If put in his position, how would I react? Exactly the way he did. This is a man that had everything taken from him. His livelihood, his family, his freedom and almost his life. There is no time for heroics here. Adrien Brody embodies the spirit of Spielzman and his win at this years Oscars was one of the happiest moments I have had watching the festivities. His speech was even better but that is a topic for another time.

    Ultimately it is his gift of music that perhaps saves his life and the final scene that he has with the German soldier is one of the most emotionally galvanizing scenes I’ve witnessed. With very little dialogue, it is in the eyes, the face, the mouth and the sounds that chime throughout their tiny space that tell you all you need to know. I think it is this scene that won Brody his Oscar. This is one of the all time great performances.

    I think Polanski spoke from the heart here. He has taken a palette of memories and amalgamated them with what he has read and given us one of the best films of our generation and any other. I think The Pianist will go down as one of the best films of this century and when all is said and done, Chicago will be forgotten the way Ordinary People was forgotten and when people talk about the film The Pianist, they will do so with reverence and respect. This is a cinematic masterpiece.

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  1. Adrien Brody's Religion and Political Views | The Hollowverse

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