The source of our discontent with “The Pianist” does not become apparent until the final seconds, when title cards inform us that what we have seen — a Polish man fleeing the Nazis during World War II — is a true story.
Ah, that’s it! The filmmakers have fallen prey to the classic syndrome of assuming a story will be interesting just because it is true. In the pursuit of being true to Wladyslaw Szpilman’s real story (the film is based on his autobiography), director Roman Polanski has neglected what separates a good film from a great one: the narrative.
The narrative in “The Pianist” is too simple, too uneventful. Wladyslaw (played by American actor Adrien Brody), a classical pianist for Polish radio in Warsaw, hides from the Nazis with his family, then continues to hide, then flees, then hides somewhere else, and so on. Polanski tinkers with the idea that music somehow helps Wladyslaw survive, but that theme is left undeveloped until, suddenly, it plays a pivotal role in a pivotal scene. Basically, the film wanders for nearly 2 1/2 hours, telling a story that is inspiring, but no more so than the dozens of other Holocaust films we’ve seen in the past half-century.
Wladyslaw’s attempts to contact a woman he once had a crush on, while probably portrayed close to how they actually occurred, don’t work in the film. The efforts seem to be taking the story somewhere, but they turn out to be rather unimportant in the overall scheme of things. The woman is included in the film simply because she existed in real life, too — but unless you’re making a documentary, “because it really happened” is not reason enough to include something in your film.
Polanski is a long way from his best work (“Chinatown,” “Rosemary’s Baby”), but he gets quite a few things marvelously right in “The Pianist.” There is an eerie, horrific scene where Wladyslaw’s family watches as the apartment house across the street is invaded and a resident is thrown off the balcony. The family, like the audience, is a mute witness, watching from a distance. Other noteworthy moments include the awesome visuals of Wladyslaw playing while his radio station is being bombed, and the apocalyptic ghetto he discovers near the end.
In general, Polanski successfully conveys the random brutality of the Nazi occupation, with death at every turn and survival not guaranteed to anyone.
Adrien Brody’s performance as Wladyslaw is key to the film; the character appears in nearly every frame. Curiously, despite the amount of time we spend with him, we do not come to know him very well. He seems to be a quiet, reserved man — but that may be only because he is in hiding for most of the film. What drives him? What keeps him alive? His love of music? Again, that notion is not given substantial support within the movie. He is a cipher.
As a young boy, Polanski himself escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and wandered through the Polish countryside for much of the war. His mother died in a concentration camp. He has a great vested interest in this story, and one hesitates to criticize such a personal film. It is akin to correcting the grammar in someone’s diary.
Nonetheless, as much sympathy as we may have for Polanski the man, that only carries over so far into sympathy for Polanski the filmmaker. “The Pianist” has the noblest of intentions and bears many marks of excellent filmmaking, but ultimately, there is very little to distinguish it from a history book. It’s the sort of movie that builds character, like visiting a sick aunt or eating vegetables.
C+ (2 hrs., 28 min.; )