How many Holocaust movies are there? Always at least one more. Thank goodness most of them are above average. “The Pianist” is considered to be one of the best. It was nominated for Best Picture and won for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor. It won the BAFTA for Best Picture. It was awarded the Palme D’Or at Cannes. “The Pianist” was directed by Roman Polanski. He put some of his own experiences into the autobiography by Wladyslaw Szpilman. When he was a boy Polanski was in the Krakow Ghetto. He barely escaped being sent to a concentration camp. His mother died in Auschwitz and his father was taken to Mauthansen. He escaped the liquidation of the ghetto and was sheltered by Polish Catholic families until he was forced to roam the countryside until the war ended. After the war, he was reunited with his father. Obviously the movie meant a lot to him. He had the ghetto faithfully recreated on a backlot in Germany. He auditioned 1,400 actors with no satisfaction. Polanski decided to ask Adrian Brody to take the role. Brody was all in. He lost 31 pounds and gave up his apartment and car to get into character. He also stopped watching TV. Method acting. The movie cost $35 million and made $120 million.
The movie opens in Warsaw in 1939. Szpilman (Brody) is playing piano for a radio station while artillery fire hits the building. His family is optimistic because Great Britain and France have declared war. They celebrate and decide to stay! No this is not a comedy. Queue German soldiers marching through the streets. Star of David badges. Bow to officers. Walk in the gutter. All preparatory to movement to the ghetto. His family and others are walled in. Wladyslaw plays piano in an upper class restaurant. This is well below his talent, but it is surviving. Things will get worse, of course. In 1942 his family has a date with cattle cars, but a loathsome collaborator decides to pull Wladslaw out of line and assign him to a slave labor battalion. He joins the resistance, but is living in a nice flat provided by some Polish friends when the uprising starts. He is merely a spectator at the repression. Eventually he is on the run. He makes the acquaintance of a humane Nazi. Capt. Hosenfeld saves Wladslaw’s life.
I have seen a lot of Holocaust movies for this blog. I am not particularly a fan of the subgenre, but some of the best war movies deal with the Holocaust. My 100 Best War Movies will include several. “The Pianist” will not be one of them. I know I will probably catch Hell for this analysis, but I think “The Pianist” is very overrated as entertainment. It is good as a reenactment of Szpilman’s war experience and the story is a significant one. He was a famous pianist, he survived the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, and he had the remarkable relationship with a Nazi soldier. The memoir was ripe for movie treatment. Polanski handles the material deftly. Brody is fine in the lead, but he certainly did not deserve the Best Actor Oscar. It should have gone to Daniel Day-Lewis for “Gangs of New York”. The problem is the script is not special. I know I complain a lot about lack of historical accuracy, but some of the best war movies take reasonable liberties with the truth to make the movie stand out. I am not suggesting that Polanski should have “enhanced” the story. I like the idea that there was admirable fidelity to the truth. I am saying that the script did not engage me. There is little suspense, partly due to the fact that you know he will survive. The movie has a habit of taking you to the edge and then fizzling. For instance, Wladslaw is part of the resistance until the uprising. Then he (and we) are merely bystanders. There is little action in the movie other than Wladslaw bouncing around with a few close calls that are less than pants-pissing for the audience. There is a redundancy to his movements. If I had not known it was nonfiction, I would have found it boring as opposed to questioning its realism. The interplay between Szpilman and Hosenfeld is too hokey for fiction. The movie avoids your stereotypical Nazi villains, but substitutes a suave, cultural Nazi savior. As far as it being a Holocaust film, it is quite micro. There is very little of the big picture. It is sprinkled with horrors, but they are not sustained. You won’t learn much about the Holocaust from this film.
If you want to see a good movie about Wladslaw Szpilman, watch “The Pianist”. But if you want to see an outstanding movie about the Holocaust, there are several better choices. “Schindler’s List” may not equal it in historical accuracy, but it blends truth with fiction in a much more entertaining way.
GRADE = B-