THE PIANIST, A DRAMA BY ROMAN POLANSKI about one man's survival in the Warsaw ghetto, is not an ideas movie. It has no particular “angle” on the Holocaust. It's not even noticeably a Polanski film. Yet The Pianist, which won the Palme d'Or and a standing ovation at Cannes last year, is made with humility and intelligence, and though it's not the director's own Holocaust story (Polanski survived the bombing of the Warsaw ghetto and, at age seven, escaped the Krakow ghetto through a hole in a fence), I have no doubt it's the movie he's been waiting to make all his life. Though the movie labors under an awkwardly expository screenplay by the British dramatist Ronald Harwood (The Dresser), it is gorgeously shot, by Pawel Edelman, in rich dark browns with an edge of sepia — the colors of old photos, the color of history — and even if you're up to here with images of emaciated corpses, it will break your heart many times over.
Based on a memoir written soon after the war by Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who died in 2000 at the age of 88, a few months before filming began, The Pianist stars a wonderfully restrained Adrien Brody as Szpilman, who, as the movie opens, is playing his beloved Chopin for Polish radio. When a German bomb lands in the studio, he carries on playing. Polanski doesn't milk heroism from this: Either the real Szpilman was a very modest hero, or he was a little detached from reality. In the movie, he's monomaniacal about his work, not a little egocentric, less than understanding of his jealous brother, and something of a dandy even when food shortages grow desperate. He's no joiner, either, even though the fledgling ghetto resistance movement tries to pull him into its ranks. When, after his family has been hauled off to the concentration camps, an opportunity presents itself to escape the ghetto, he seizes it, and has no compunction about enlisting the reluctant aid of a freedom fighter. Few would have done otherwise.
The rest is a series of astonishing narrow escapes as Szpilman, one step ahead of the Nazis, moves from safe houses to the streets, to another safe house with a perfect view of the guerrilla war being fought between the Germans and those Jews with enough energy to resist. Szpilman is the lucky one, the one who got away, but as a fugitive he's intolerably isolated, not to say absolutely lacking in control, not only of his fate, but of his survival, minute by minute of day after day.
The Pianist is particularly good at depicting the terrifying blend of arbitrary personal sadism by individual German soldiers and the institutional brutality of the Nazi machine. And however unsparing the movie is in cataloging the Jews' desperate predicament, the movie is never reductive. It shows us good and bad Jews, good and bad Poles, and a cultured Nazi, sensitively played by Thomas Kretschmann, who saves Szpilman's life after hearing him play, and whose life the musician can't manage to save in return. Like that of many Holocaust survivors, Szpilman's story is so inherently dramatic that, as it plays out in The Pianist, you have to keep reminding yourself that all this really happened. Polanski, wisely, doesn't interpret or explain. He seems to have decided that in the face of such meticulously planned horror, the best one can do is get the details right.
AS OPINIONATED AND SELF-CONSCIOUS AS The Pianist is unassuming, Max — a first feature written and directed by Dutch screenwriter Menno Meyjes — suggests that had young Adolf Hitler managed to get his art show, the Holocaust might never have happened. This seems absurd, not to say insensitive, on its face, but Meyjes, who's best known in this country for writing the overheated script for The Color Purple, has done his homework and soaked up some jazzy new revisionist theories about the origins of Nazi politics and aesthetics. Set in Munich in 1918, when Germany was smarting from its humiliating defeat in World War I, the movie turns on a tenuous friendship between two veterans of the battle at Ypres — Max Rothman, a Jewish art dealer (he's a composite of several real-life Jews from the art world who helped Hitler sell his work), and Hitler himself, who is unemployed, starving, and longing for some recognition of his sentimental paintings.
Max, played with lazy elegance by John Cusack, has it all: money, sophistication, a beautiful Jewish wife (Molly Parker) and loving family, and a shiksa mistress (Leelee Sobieski). Having lost an arm to the war, he can no longer paint, but he's thrown himself into the burgeoning modernist art movement that sprang up in Germany between the wars, exhibiting the abstract work of George Grosz, Max Ernst and others (who later were numbered among the “degenerate” artists persecuted under the Third Reich) in the cavernous gallery he's set up in a disused railway station. Hitler, who's played by Australian actor Noah Taylor, is as appalled by the new art as he is fascinated by the rise of right-wing populism and anti-Semitism among former soldiers of his own class. But again, he's desperate for recognition, and Max, through some combination of pity, fellow feeling and patronage, encourages the resentful young nerd.
Taylor's performance is clearly intended to be provocative, designed to liberate Hitler from the jackbooted, toothbrush-mustached clichés his image has accumulated over the years. So it's unfortunate that Taylor's histrionic acting makes of the future Führer a cartoon in its own right. Buried under layers of pallor-inducing makeup, the actor whines and scowls and froths at the mouth, and it doesn't help that Meyjes' screenplay loads him up with declarative topic sentences — “The man has no technique!” “War is the hygiene of the world!” “Politics is the new art!” — that drain away from the movie's central insight, which is that Max and his protégé have one fateful thing in common: They both believe in the future. As a painter Hitler is a failure, but Max comes to see that he is a gifted designer who, for all that he abhors the abstract modernists, has learned much from them. Except that where Max and his Dadaist friends imagine a freer, more liberal and tolerant world to come, Hitler sees the future as a return to some fancied glorious past governed by purity of blood. We know whose vision won, but Meyjes is not alone in suggesting that the Nazi aesthetic was shaped by the modernist aesthetic. Some historians now believe that Hitler was as much a man of his time (not to mention an intellectual autodidact) as he was a rebel against it. Meyjes takes pains to show that Hitler's rise depended upon a disenfranchised and reactionary proletariat, but he can't resist giving the story a last-minute tweak that implies that it was mere chance that shaped Hitler's destiny, and that of European Jewry. In the movie's final scenes, Max and Hitler arrange a meeting to go over Hitler's promising new sketches. For the most urgent of reasons, Max doesn't show. The rest is history — or one idea too many by a writer-director with a penchant for going over the top.
THE PIANIST | Directed by ROMAN POLANSKI | Written by RONALD HARWOOD | Based on the book by WLADYSLAW SZPILMAN | Produced by POLANSKI, ROBERT BENMUSSA and ALAIN SARDE | Released by Focus Features | At Loews Century Plaza
MAX | Written and directed by MENNO MEYJES | Produced by ANDRAS HAMORI | Released by Lions Gate Films | At Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex and Laemmle's Sunset 5