The Pianist

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The Pianist

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After surviving the bombing of Warsaw and witnessing his parents being taken to the concentration camp where his mother eventually died, a 7-year-old Roman Polanski escaped the Krakow ghetto through a hole in a barbed-wire fence and took refuge in Catholic homes around the countryside. In terms of his age and cognizance, to say nothing of responsibility, Polanski's story doesn't quite rhyme with that of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a young Polish pianist who managed to elude death through resilience and startling good fortune. But Szpilman's memoirs have provided Polanski with a clear, objective window back to his childhood, allowing him to conjure up his own harrowing memories and filter them through someone else's story. For obvious reasons, The Pianist must be considered his most personal film, but it's also his most stylistically impersonal; it's flattened by the same middlebrow tastefulness that stifles so many other films about the Holocaust. Polanski isn't the first director to be tamed by such a grave subject, but it's disappointing to see one of cinema's liveliest and most provocative directors reduced to a mere skillful craftsman. The surprise winner of the Palme D'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, The Pianist does have a few subtle grace notes, many of them from the soulful Adrien Brody, who plays Szpilman like a sad-eyed specter that haunts the streets of Warsaw, cheating death as if through divine will. Always a master of point of view–as evidenced by classics like Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby–Polanski reveals Warsaw's changing complexion entirely from Brody's perspective, which makes the quiet spaces between each new atrocity fraught with uncertainty. Opening with the Nazi invasion of Poland and closing at the end of the war, The Pianist sticks close to the experience of ordinary middle-class Jews as their liberties are methodically stripped away and they're deposited in walled ghettos before getting shipped off to labor camps. Partly through resourcefulness and charm, mostly because of dumb luck, Szpilman escapes the dire fate of his parents and siblings and survives in the Warsaw ruins, relying on the hollow walls and secret flats of non-Jewish sympathizers. Polanski takes an enormous risk by building his movie around a hero who isn't remotely heroic, a mostly passive observer whose survival allows him to bear witness to one small corner of history. (In this respect, Szpilman is the anti-Schindler: He doesn't want to make a difference in the war, just live to see the end of it.) Through Brody's remarkably controlled, self-effacing performance, Polanski succeeds in making his hero an invisible man, but the sights he conjures are surprisingly artless and ordinary, familiar from a dozen other Holocaust dramas. Among the casualties in The Pianist is a great director's imagination.

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