Apr 2003 Journal

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Out-of-focus masterpiece

Directed by Roman Polanski
On limited release

This extraordinary film, based on Wladislaw Szpielmann’s autobiographical account, can be divided into three parts: pre-war life, ghetto existence and deportation, and the pianist’s relations with those who helped him survive.

The first and third parts work well. What diminishes the impact of the middle part is the depiction of gratuitous violence in the long deportation sequence. It is one thing to show the slavish brutality of the baton-wielding Jewish police, but another to represent in detail butchery which arouses only revulsion. The lush green fields in Claude Landsmann’s Shoah, where the death factories of Treblinka stood, conjure up the horror of the place more effectively than Polanski’s naturalism.

This is far from run-of-the-mill screen fare: the director had the responsibility of selecting and recording unique historical events. As he devotes more than an hour to representing the murder of thousands of passive Jewish victims, it is a misjudgement to dismiss in a few frames the fight to the death of a handful of ill-armed Jewish men and women who, for four months, challenged the might of two Waffen SS regiments supported by Tiger tanks and Stuka bombers. Here, Polanski missed a golden opportunity to tell the world that not all Jews were sheep to the slaughter; rather than minimising the uprising, he would have done better not to mention it.

Through the eyes of the not-so-admirable Szpielmann, the film follows, with detachment and compassion, the day-by-day process of the destruction of the great pre-war Jewish community of Warsaw, from the laying of the first bricks of the ghetto wall to the mandatory ‘happy ending’, with Szpielmann, the lucky survivor, giving a concert in a Warsaw ruled no longer by Hitler, but by Stalin.

The handsome Adrien Brody charms as a man who could survive on an ice-flow, and Maureen Lipman is impressive as a mother trying to keep her family alive and together in the ghetto. All in all, a film you must see for Polanski’s masterly handling of the huge crowd scenes and his ability to build up suspense.
Andrew Herskovits

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