(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2003)
If we all sat down to think up our lists of the greatest living directors, I doubt whether Roman Polanski’s name would turn up too often any more. In exile from the US for almost thirty years now, since fleeing a likely conviction for statutory rape, he’s continued to make a film every four or five years on average, but with increasingly less conviction or visibility. It’s a shame, because his early work was so richly diverse. He was born in Poland, but in his early 30s was already capable of making Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion, two movies with an equally advanced understanding of, but very different responses to, the tensions and absurdities underlying Englishness.
His first American film, Rosemary’s Baby, is fairly straightforward material, with relatively little thematic complexity, but Polanski renders it unimaginably unsettling. When handed a magnificent contemporary script, as he was in Robert Towne’s Chinatown, he produced one of the masterpieces of the 70’s – one of those movies that seems to have undergone a strange alchemy, acquiring a resonance far beyond what its raw materials should have allowed for. And many consider his version of Macbeth to be one of the finest Shakespearean films.
Since he took flight, the best-received film has been Tess, a carefully composed Thomas Hardy adaptation that hasn’t maintained much of a reputation. The rest are mere odds and ends: Pirates, Frantic, Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden, The Ninth Gate. And now that he approaches 70, his career must be coming to an end.
All the more amazing that he won this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes for his film The Pianist. Not that many of the critics I read seemed to think the prize was deserved on merit. No matter – Polanski had returned. And with a possible Oscar nomination ahead, and his teenage victim now in her 40s and supposedly wishing for his rehabilitation, who can say that a return to Hollywood is necessarily out of the question?
I don’t mean to make The Pianist sound like a mere career calculation. Quite the opposite: it’s perhaps the most personal of all Polanski’s films. His parents were sent to concentration camps; his mother died at Auschwitz. The Pianist is his first film addressing the Holocaust. It recreates the war experience of a Polish Jew, Wladyslaw Szpilman, played by Adrian Brody, who avoids the camps only by the narrowest of margins, and then spends several years as a fugitive in Warsaw. The film is a superb recreation, slightly marred in places by the stateliness of script and casting that often characterizes European co-productions, but generally completely engrossing and moving.
One can’t help but probe the material for signs of “classic” Polanski, although it’s something you do with care. Even the most tasteless director would be somewhat self-effacing in dealing with a subject like this (I pass without comment over “Nazi-chic” films such as The Night Porter). Still, although I would never really have thought of Polanski as a natural choice for such material, his background notwithstanding, there’s much in his work to presage it.
David Thomson summed him up this way: “The violence in Polanski’s films is not especially prominent: it has seldom erupted with the force achieved by Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Fuller or Losey. Much more characteristic is the underlying alienation and hostility: the feeling that people are cut off, unsupported by any shared view of life and society. From this solitariness, the move toward acts of violence is stealthy, remorseless, and even comic…What enlarges (Polanski’s world) is his sense of humour, the lack of self-pity, and the curiosity that he retains for human behaviour.”
If we take Thomson’s synopsis almost as a Polanski blueprint, it’s clear how such a filmmaker, regardless of personal history, might be fated for this most traumatic of subjects – attuned to the condition of both jailed and jailer, infusing the work with humanism without sentiment. The film’s violence is pointed, and precise, usually presented at a distance that emphasizes its clinical design. There’s a scene where, as Brody and his family watch, a group of Nazis pulls up below and enters an apartment across the street. They throw a wheelchair-bound elder out of the window; herd the others outside; order them to run; shoot them as they flee. The sequence has a terrible choreography that conveys the grotesquely “experimental” nature of Nazism – the feeling that a whole race debased itself in constructing some morbid laboratory.
Depicting the Holocaust
The second half of the movie consists almost entirely of watching and waiting. Brody grows a beard and looks increasingly like Jesus; he almost starves to death; and when the last of his safe houses literally collapses around him he can do no better than scrounge around in the ruins – apparently almost the last free man left in the city. The elegant aloofness of his profession decays into near-madness. There’s a magnificent (if somewhat contrived), enormously resonant sequence near the end when a Nazi officer, on learning his profession, forces him to play. He hasn’t touched a piano for years, but he discharges the task brilliantly, instantly regaining his suppressed identity. As you watch though, you don’t know if you’re watching a resurgence of life or a final affirmation before death.
Films about great collective events always run the risk that the travails of the protagonists will overshadow the broader importance of the events depicted. The obvious solution is to avoid protagonists, but few films even attempt this (Peter Watkins’ Culloden is a classic exception). The Pianist can’t sidestep this; indeed, Brody may spend more screen time alone than anyone since Tom Hanks in Cast Away. This makes his experience highly anomalous, but it travels the same tragic arc as his family in the camps: diminishing hope, physical decline, and ultimate total destruction. The only exception is that he avoids death itself, and the film avoids making any trite statement on how to value that difference. Polanski’s great achievement is to stay true to the story’s solitude while making that solitude speak to everything we don’t see.
Polanski’s film is a meaningful addition even to a subject as meticulously explored as this one (the year’s other Holocaust film, The Grey Zone, had equal thematic ambition but seemed to me substantially less well executed). The trifling quality of his recent work vanishes here; maybe for the first time, Polanski seems not just brilliant and intuitive, but wise. As though, in depicting the pianist’s long ordeal, he somehow drew not just on the ghosts of his childhood, but on the lessons of his own long exile.