LOS ANGELES, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Although it's one of the frontrunners in the scramble for Oscar nominations, Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama "The Pianist" is actually a movie of surprisingly modest ambitions. If you trust too much in the critics' raves, you are likely to leave puzzled over what all the shouting is about. Yet, if you rein in your expectations, this competent film will impress you.
Based on the laconic 1946 memoir by Jewish composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, "The Pianist" shies away from both general questions about the meaning of the Holocaust and personal ones about the protagonist's emotions to simply recount the unlikely facts of how one man survived.
The movie, like its hero, is something of a blank slate upon which critics have been inscribing their own Deep Thoughts about the Holocaust and Polanski's lurid life. The Polish Jewish director lost his mother to Adolf Hitler and his wife to Charles Manson. He has been on the lam in Europe since being sentenced in 1978 for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl.
"The Pianist" isn't in the same class as Polanski's 1974 "Chinatown," which might feature the best use of ambient sound ever. Here, the dialogue (which is in English) is somewhat muffled. Still, this is a strong effort for a 69-year-old director.
Szpilman was a celebrity in pre-WWII Warsaw, straddling classical and pop music in the manner of George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein. He was playing Chopin on Polish radio in September 1939 when the German artillery bombardment began.
Soon, the Nazi administrators were harassing Warsaw's Jews with detailed regulations, while individual German soldiers tortured them with anarchic impunity. As the noose tightened, the Jews haltingly discovered their fate, one so appalling that even Hitler wouldn't mention it to more than his closest henchmen.
This first half of the movie is well done, although a little generic after decades of books, movies, miniseries, and History Channel documentaries retelling the terrible collective destiny of the Jews.
At first, Szpilman kept his parents and siblings fed by playing background music at an expensive café. It wasn't heroic, but few besides his hot-blooded younger brother wanted the musician to resist the Nazis. Instead, other Jews looked out for him, treating his life as more important than the average person's. When Szpilman and his relations were being herded onto the cattle cars to Treblinka, a Nazi collaborator saved his life.
Later, the Jewish resistance helped him escape the Warsaw Ghetto.
This second half of the movie is the more idiosyncratic. Szpilman's Polish Gentile fans hid him for two years in abandoned apartments, from which he witnessed the savage repressions of both the1943 Ghetto uprising and the 1944 Polish Catholic rebellion.
In its relative lack of dialogue and score, the last hour recalls the silent middle passage of "Cast Away." There are a few bizarre touches. A music-loving Nazi captain gives the freezing Szpilman his coat, which almost gets the musician shot by his communist liberators. Still, for the surrealism of survival, "The Pianist" can hardly compare to "Empire of the Sun," J.G. Ballard's autobiographical account of a Japanese internment camp, as brought to the screen in 1987 with jaw-dropping imagination by Steven Spielberg and Tom Stoppard.
The young American actor Adrien Brody is physically well cast as Szpilman. Tall, thin, and elegant, he simply looks like a man with the long-fingered hands of a concert pianist.
Many are talking Brody up for the Best Actor Oscar. Yet, veteran screenwriter Ronald Harwood (who in 1970 adapted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's somewhat similar Gulag novel "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich") doesn't give Brody much to say or do, other than to grow ever more gaunt. Brody mostly gazes flatly upon the mounting indignities and atrocities with the preoccupied air of a starving man.
Brody's general lack of affect certainly seems realistic. But why all the hype over a performance that hundreds of actors could have given?
Perhaps Brody's performance works as an audience-participation exercise. His Charles Bronson-like shortage of facial expressions combined with his character's dire circumstances seem to encourage many viewers to project their own feelings onto him.
For example, would you feel survivor's guilt if you were Szpilman? Some of the audience would, some wouldn't. Normally, the filmmakers would have to choose which group to please and which to offend. Many in the audience would have to wind up annoyed that the main character doesn't react like they would. But, here, nobody has to feel left out, since all can believe (with just as much evidence as anyone else) that the hero, deep down, feels exactly the way they would.
Rated R for violence.