A FEW PEOPLE have criticized Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan for giving World War II the Hollywood treatment—fitting it into screenplay structure, adding heroism, orchestrated climaxes, pointed ironies (the Nazi playing Beethoven on a found piano to a machine-gun obbligato). The whole problem with Polanski's The Pianist (which opens Friday, Jan. 3, at the Metro and Uptown) is that he doesn't do enough to make history into a movie.
It's certainly authentic, based on the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a snooty musician who played Chopin on Polish radio until bombs interrupted his broadcast. Polanski follows him as the Nazi noose slowly closes on Warsaw. It starts with petty harassment: "Jew! Stop walking in the street like a real person—that's right, step into the gutter and be on your way." The film helps you realize how the gradualism of the Holocaust gave it a spurious legalism in the minds of perpetrators, and helped blind victims to the unimaginable future until it was too late.
A morally ambiguous Jewish friend saves Szpilman from the train to Treblinka, and variously saintly and exploitative resistance members—and a veritable Schindler of a German officer—hide him in safe houses with a perfect view of the atrocities. Polanski has every right to the material, having lived through these times himself (his mother died in Auschwitz). Cinematographer Pawel Edelman is a master of ashen realism, and designer Allan Starski stunningly recreates the dreamscape of war (with miniatures and digital effects every bit as evocative as Scorsese's mega-costly mile-long set for Gangs of New York). Adrien Brody's performance puts us right into the pianist's skin throughout the ordeal, if seldom into his soul. The use of music and silence is eloquent, as when Szpilman is confined in a room with a piano and nosy Catholic neighbors eager to report suspicious sounds. Szpilman eyes the keys, and his mind floods with melody.
But screenwriter Ronald Harwood finds no dramatic shape for the three-year ordeal. Szpilman flees from hideout to hideout, gets famished, finds the odd can of food, glimpses snipers, endures in silence. Waiting for Godot was part memoir, too, based on Beckett's tedious wait in hiding for World War II to end, but art requires more than boredom faithfully transcribed. The Pianist fares best in its early scenes, when, like The Diary of Anne Frank, it has family dynamics to explore. The bulk of the film, the solitary waiting part, is an artistic failure about a human triumph.