2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Monday, January 13, 2003
The Pianist, dir. Roman Polanski.

Responses to phyrephox’s review, and other comments.

I can barely imagine how difficult it must have been for Polanski to tackle the subject matter of this film. Himself an escapee from the Krakow ghetto, Polanski apparently turned down an offer to film Schindler’s List. In using Wladyslaw Szpilman’s account of survival in (and outside) the Warsaw ghetto, he’s dealing with a story that directly addresses the all-too-real nightmares and memories of his own childhood. – Was it a cathartic experience? We can only speculate. But (in response to Joker’s comment) I suspect that, had Szpilman not survived his ordeal, it would have been too harrowing for Polanski to deal with the film at all.

Ordinary/not ordinary:

Both; but perhaps not quite in the same sense that phyrephox means it.

Many of the scenes/elements of the film are sadly familiar: the gradual restrictions placed on the Jews; early reactions of incomprehension/ denial /bravado; small humiliations and large; the constant threat of random violence; fear of collaborators and betrayal; narrow, chance escapes from discovery and death; the casual brutality of the Nazis; and the courage of individuals who themselves risked death to save someone else. For anyone who’s seen even a small number of Holocaust-themed films, scenes such as (for example) the one where the family hears, on the radio, details of new restrictions and regulations, won’t be new to us.

Szpilman’s story is obviously atypical in that he survived. Szpilman himself may perhaps be thought of as an “ordinary” man (albeit with remarkable musical gifts); but I believe that, even in the most banal life, there lies the possibility of the extraordinary: people, when you really think of it, are both ordinary and interesting. Human psychology, will, and action can be wonderfully unpredictable, richly complex, and endlessly fascinating. Many film-makers have made a career out of exploring and celebrating the quotidian (just from my Top Twenty list: Mike Leigh, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Michael Apted [in the Up series], Ken Loach, Hou Hsiao-Hsien).

And then, the mere fact of his survival also makes his story unusual in itself.

Phyrephox, re. Szpilman’s seeming “passivity”, of his depiction as a “man who never takes action”: True, it was often blind chance that spared his life; and, for most of the two years that he was in hiding outside the ghetto, he had to rely on his Gentile Polish friends for food and shelter. But we also see him, during the earlier scenes in the film, scrabbling for his and his family’s survival: at the piano-playing job when it was available; and getting work-visas that he thought would spare them deportation. And, during the last months, when he was alone in the ruins of bombed-out Warsaw, even “being on auto-pilot for survival” (in your phrase) is itself something of an achievement.

Small details from the book (excerpts from reviews on: http://www.szpilman.net/ ) that were excluded from the film would have perhaps have further illustrated his resilience and will. For example, that during his time in hiding, he mentally “played”, over and over, every piece of music [he] had known. Another, a riveting episode when, certain that capture was imminent and resigned to death, he swallowed a suicide pill. Regaining consciousness hours later, he realized that he had not only managed to elude discovery, but was alive. His reaction: not the despair that had engulfed him earlier, but “a giddy joy”.

(As an aside, let me be quite clear that I don’t mean to imply that those people who, through whatever combination of circumstance, managed to live through the war, necessarily had better survival skills, or were psychologically stronger, than those who didn’t.)

Despite my quibbles with the character as scripted, the film is a triumph for Adrien (with an “e”) Brody; especially as, losing 30 lbs off his already lean 6’1” frame, he had to throw himself into the project with the harrowing last weeks of Szpilman’s ordeal first. (Filming was done in reverse chronological order to use Brody’s weight loss to best effect.)

Given the nominations and Palme d’Or at Cannes, this film also represents something of a critical triumph for Polanski. I believe his best film probably remains Chinatown; nevertheless, this is – given his history – clearly his most personal and heartfelt film. It’s also – again, finally- a story worthy of his rich (and maddeningly variable) talent.

In closing, a couple of particularly memorable scenes from the film: possible spoilers

* The Szpilman family, after having been separated, are reunited in the town square while awaiting deportation. A boy makes the rounds, peddling candy. The Szpilmans collectively scrape together the twenty zlotys for one piece, then carefully cut and share it in sixths. It proves to be their last meal together.

* Fleeing a burning building, Szpilman climbs over a wall. Dropping to the ground on the other side, an unbelievable sight meets his eyes: a city in ruins – a streetscape of the hollow buildings and rubble, stretching to the horizon.

Grade: B.

- copywright.