On The Pianist

Went to see The Pianist at the Richmond Filmhouse. An astonishing, distressing, moving, noble and humane film, despite its story of inhumanity. It was the harder to watch in the knowledge that a real war, albeit not a comparable one either in scale or humanity, was being fought by your own country as it was being screened. The transformation that Adrien Brody undergoes throughout is remarkable – he starts out in his mid-20s and by the end when he’s hobbling around the bombed-out houses and hospital he looks about 100. By the end, you really got the feeling you’d lived through the war with him. Some truly dreadful things are depicted in the first 45 minutes in occupied Warsaw and I didn’t think I could continue watching because I knew things could only get immeasurably worse when the family were taken to the concentration camp, but the whole film took a totally unexpected turn when Szpilman managed to avoid the cattle-truck. When that train pulled away I got the feeling that Roman Polanski was saying, “Beyond this point, I cannot go, and nor, truly, can anyone else. Let the ghosts of those tormented souls – both the Jews and the Nazis – rest now.” The film was, in fact, the least Polanskiesque of all his films; it made me think that – with the exception of the masterpiece Chinatown – he’s just been dicking about for the rest of his career.

What interested me about my own reaction to the film was that the brutality depicted just made me feel sick and numb, whereas it was only the performance of the Chopin piece in the bombed-out house that made me cry. That piece, both as a composition and a performance, contained everything – love, hate, pride, humanity, sorrow, faith, hope, despair, life, death, war, peace… It struck me that in this sense, the story could only have been about a musician: at the crucial juncture, when his life is finally on the line once and for all, if he’d been some other kind of artist instead, say a painter, writer or actor, I think the outcome would have been different, because those media wouldn’t have been immediate enough for him to express himself. Douglas Adams once said, “Music is the most abstract of all the arts – it can only be itself”; but in the way it was used in this film, music seemed vindicated as the least abstract, the most direct channel of communication between – in that famous phrase, so popular at the moment – hearts and minds.