Friday, April 18, 2014

The Pianist

I am pleased to report that I am now quite recovered from my ordeal on the set of Celebrity Survivor. The show may have been junked following financial problems on the part of the producers but Joseph, my manager, has been able to secure most of the footage of me as I survive on various natural foods garnished with Lesterene beauty products as condiments. He thinks the raw film can be shaped into a stunning infomercial for Lesterene showing its incredible new uses as nutritious outdoor food and that this may open up a whole new marketplace for the line. He can take it duck hunting and spread it on Ritz crackers while she can spread it on her face at night to firm and tone unsightly wrinkles. 

It has been far too long since I had a chance to converse with all of my fans and I want you all to know I have enjoyed the fruit baskets immensely during my convalescence. I could have done without the three cases of Butter Pecan flavored Ensure from Margo Channing but I suppose it's the thought that counts. I sent it over to the gastrostomy ward so they could all have a little change of taste.

I am back at home at Chateau Maine where I have been sorting scripts and have been completely caught up in 24/7 cable news coverage of political events in Iraq. I had an epiphany this past week and decided that the more frivolous projects I have been considering such as A Little Wight Music, a new musical adaptation of Peter Straub's Ghost Story, would just have to wait. I, Mrs. Norman Maine, need to be out there doing my part for our gallant forces in the field and to help bring healing and reconciliation to the people of Iraq. I will shortly be embarking on a USO tour to Baghdad and beyond, b
ringing my family friendly brand of wholesome entertainment to a part of the world starved for sequins and marabou. Joseph, my manager, is arranging my embedding into a combat unit even as I write this.

In order to prepare for the scenes of devastation which may lie ahead, I decided I really needed to attend a film which takes place in war time. I therefore headed off to the Cineplex to catch Roman Polanski's surprise Oscar winner, The Pianist with Adrien Brody. I had heard one might pick up a survival tip or two in regards to making it through urban fighting by paying attention to some of the plot elements.

The Pianist is based on a true story; Brody plays Wladyslaw Szpilman, a well known Polish musician, who lives a comfortable middle class existence in Warsaw on the eve of World War II. He and his brother, sisters, and parents, secular Jews, share a large comfortable flat while he begins a romance with Dorota (Emilia Fox), a Christian who is a cellist. As the film opens, Nazi Germany invades Poland and the country soon capitulates. The anti-Semitic laws of the conquerors come into force and the family find themselves impoverished and crammed, with the rest of the Jewish community of Warsaw and surrounding areas, into a vast ghetto of deprivation, starvation, inhumanity and desperation. The Szpilman's are luckier than most. They are cultured and have some money and are able to exploit the system for as comfortable a life as imprisonment can provide. Wladyslaw makes money as the house pianist in a ghetto cafe.

Things seem to be stable until 1942 when the Germans begin their final solution. The Warsaw Ghetto is liquidated with the inhabitants being railroaded to Auschwitz and Treblinka and annihilation. Wladyslaw, by chance, escapes and remains as a laborer, ultimately escaping from the ghetto with the assistance of Dorota and members of the underground. From his hiding place, he is able to watch the Warsaw ghetto uprising and ultimate destruction. He then has to live hand to mouth amidst the ruins of wartime Warsaw as the city becomes a battleground for the Germans and the advancing Russians. He is saved through the intervention of a kindly German officer (Thomas Kretschmann) with a love of music. Ultimately, after liberation Szpilman returns to his musical career and starts to rebuild his shattered life.

We have seen such triumph of the spirit in the face of adversity Holocaust films before (Schindler's List, Playing for Time) but this one has enough going for it to keep it from sinking into a morass of World War II clichés. The film is held together by Mr. Brody's amazing performance. With his long, lean frame and hawk like nose, he can transform himself from elegance to starving wreck with little more than a change of clothes and body language. He is in nearly every frame of the film as participant and as observer and his ability to be a full presence without emoting is the hallmark of true acting skill. His Oscar is well deserved. Most of the supporting cast have relatively small roles. They are well suited to their parts but few make an impression; the exceptions are the old English character actor Frank Finlay as Szpilman's cantankerous father and Michal Zebrowski as his rebellious brother.

The true richness of the film, however, comes from the vision of Polanski. I will not enter the debate on Polanski's behavior with underage girls here. It is necessary to know, however, that Polanski was a Polish Jew who was interned, as a child, in the Krakow ghetto. His mother thrust him through a hole in the wall when the ghetto was obliterated and he survived by being sheltered by Catholic families. His mother and other relatives were gassed at Treblinka. Only someone who had been there could have come up with the richness of detail visible here. The gentle sharing of a single caramel six ways, the howls of anguish over a spilled dinner pail, the texture of excruciating boredom of long imprisonment.

The film was short primarily in Germany, rather than in Warsaw. World War II so thoroughly decimated that city that only six buildings remain from pre-1939. The international cast are primarily German and Polish with great period detail seen in the sets and costumes. Polanski also takes a straightforward and real approach to the violence. It's not glorified. It's not studied. It just happens, much as such things happen in real life.

The adaptation, by Ronald Harwood (also an Oscar winner) from Szpilman's autobiography gives us a sensitive portrait of the man and of the society that was destroyed. It occasionally drags and the last act of the film feels a bit forced and overlong but these are minor quibbles. There is a certain glossing over of facts to make the material more cinematic. (The real Szpilman was better known for his pop songs and jazz than for his classical piano; his being saved from the death train was more because of his celebrity for this than a random occurrence etc.) But Hollywood is never one to let facts stand in the way of a good story.

The film is engrossing. It's worth seeing for Mr. Brody's superior performance. The more melodramatic and maudlin sections aren't that distracting. I'm not sure that it's an instant classic, but it's certainly better than a trip to Bulletproof Monk.

Exploding radio studio. 'No Jews Allowed' signs. Blue and white armbands. Degrading waltz. Bridge over streetcars. Dropped bricks. Hidden guns. Not so hidden potatoes. Severe malnutrition. Exploding hospital. Ruined villa piano playing. Bread and jam.

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