Much as I hate edicts about what kind of art people should and shouldn’t make, I’m sometimes tempted to go along with Claude Lanzmann’s that no one should make fiction films about the Holocaust. Especially in a world where Holocaust deniers are looking for any excuse to say the whole thing was faked, it seems irresponsible to falsify any facts about it, or to try to make its savage lessons go down easy by breaking them into easily digestible bits. As Alain Resnais argued so ferociously and prophetically in Night and Fog, unless we look squarely at what the Nazis did, acknowledging the human impulses within us all that allowed the German people and the Nazis’ many collaborators in other countries to help perpetuate Hitler’s Final Solution, we’re doomed to repeat that hellish slice of history—or something very much like it, as we already have in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, among other places.
Which is not to say that the line separating good and bad Holocaust films is drawn between fiction films and documentaries. Rather, it separates films that help us understand something about that massive crime against the concept of humanity from films that cheapen their subject, usually by using it as the backdrop for some photogenic protagonist’s tale of suffering and survival—or, worse yet, spiritual growth.
By that standard, The Pianist is one of the best Holocaust movies ever made. Director Roman Polanski grew up in Poland during WWII, where he was on his own for much of his childhood after his mother was killed by the Nazis and his father was sent to a concentration camp. After becoming a director, he looked for years for a Holocaust story to film. Then he found a memoir published by Wladyslaw (“Wladeck”) Szpilman in 1946, which went out of print soon thereafter. Polanski gravitated toward the book, he says in a DVD commentary, because it was “extremely accurate, and that’s because it was written immediately after the war,” while the author’s memories were still fresh.
This is not only one of the best Holocaust movies ever made but probably the film Polanski was born to make. The closest he’s ever come to making an autobiographical movie, it combines the best of his other best work, including the slowly accumulating sense of menace of Knife in the Water and the breathlessly casual cruelty of Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, whose protagonists are also fighting for their lives in opaque power structures presided over by ruthless psychopaths.
If there were an antonym for sentimentality—a word that describes a compassionate but clear-eyed view of the human condition as devoid of mawkishness as it is of cynicism—The Pianist could be its dictionary illustration. When the movie opens, it’s 1939 in Warsaw, and the city is literally exploding outside the sound booth where Szpilman (an admirably reined-in Adrien Brody) is playing Chopin for a radio broadcast. Wladeck and his fellow Jews are about to be systematically stripped of all their rights and possessions, stigmatized, corralled like so much livestock into an increasingly filthy and overcrowded ghetto, and ultimately killed by the millions. Yet Wladeck has a sense of himself, and a sensitivity to the humanity around him, that not even six years in Nazi-occupied Warsaw can extinguish.
Polanski’s determination to be faithful to the book extended to the pianist’s empathetic attitude, which colors the story. That allows The Pianist to document a steadily escalating parade of horrors without resorting to nihilism, adolescent revenge fantasies or sentimentality.
The film also steers clear of the simple-minded, good-guy Allies vs. bad-guy Nazis dichotomy that characterized nearly every movie made about the Holocaust between the war and the turn of this century, a period during which filmmakers and audiences were presumably far enough from the war not to remember it with Szpilman’s accuracy yet close enough to need to comfort of self-flattering assurances. (I mean, good people like us would never go along with anything like that, right?)
There’s no need for fictionalization in this gripping story, which also includes the Warsaw ghetto uprising and Szpilman’s eleventh-hour discovery by a Nazi officer who becomes his unlikely champion. Rather than sell the drama or pathos, Polanski and team go for a painstakingly detailed, consistently underplayed sense of realism, recreating the ghetto’s crowded streets and peopling them with a vivid collection of lost souls, including a woman driven crazy by grief and a starving man who wrestles an elderly woman for her gruel.
Some of the most “cinematic” scenes in the film, like the woman who meekly asks a Nazi where he is about to take her and is answered by a bullet in the forehead, are taken from Polanski’s life rather than Szpilman’s, but they all happened to one of the two and made enough of an impression to be remembered years later. That may help account for how many scenes from The Pianist are now burned into my brain, like the sight of a woman shot in the street as she runs, who drops to her knees and then folds forward onto herself, as if she were suddenly sleepy. Or the little square of caramel Szpilman’s father buys with the family’s last coins as they await their final deportation, carefully dividing it up into equal bits so they all get a precious piece. Or the thud as a Nazi strikes down Szpilman’s refined father in the street for failing to bow when he passes.
Meanwhile, we see so many Jews killed in so many ways that we start to understand the inexorable yet random nature of the violence—and the numb silence with which the starving survivors eventually face the sight of another dead or dying comrade.
No movie could ever make us fully understand what they went through, of course. But this one, like the cracked frosted windowpane in one of Szpilman’s hideouts, gives us a vivid if limited view of a terrifying, fascinating world—a place we may need to study for all the clues we can get.