The Pianist (2002)

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? It you tickle us, we we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” 

Roman Polanski’s Academy Award winning film, The Pianist

Interestingly enough, this brief recitation of Shakespeare was not nearly the most poetic moment in Roman Polanski’s portrayal of the life of Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist. This film, one that has received much critical acclaim, tells the tale of an artist living through the bottomless chasm of human suffering that was the Holocaust. What Polanski delivers is remarkable.

The film is based on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s book Death of a City. It is an auto-biographical account of Szpilman’s experience during WWII. The film is exceptional in that it manages to capture a Nazi occupied Poland, and the nature of the hardships experienced there while also preserving a separate spatial plane for understandings of incongruous things, like  family, souls, and music. In times of keen suffering life seems to be reduced to the baser things, such as hunger or shelter. The director and the actors do a wonderful job of communicating this.

The film begins with Szpilman playing the piano, and it ends similarly. However, all that is between is a cacophony of loss and grief. There is a certain rhythmic quality to the progression of the film, not unlike that of the piece Szpilman performs (Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Chopin) for Nazi Wilm Hosenfeld, who upon discovering Szpilman beseeches him to play. The loss of music was a theme that I think, while subdued, was almost as strong as the calamity surrounding it. There is a scene wherein Szpilman is in hiding, and his lodging has a piano that he cannot play for fear of being discovered. So he sits at the piano and pantomimes playing a glorious song. The passion and warmth is Brody’s jaundiced, bearded, hollow face were magnificent. The dutiful conviction Brody brings to this scene and countless others is in large part what makes this film seem real. His beginnings as a famous pianist were cool and deferential. Those qualities carried throughout the film, unhampered by tragedy and echoes of unrepentant diaspora.

Adrien Brody as Władysław Szpilman

Wladyslaw Szpilman: It’s a funny time to say this, but… 
Halina: What? 
Wladyslaw Szpilman: I wish I knew you better. 

Polanski’s decisive focus on peripheral characters was something of value. There is a scene where a woman is killed during a Jewish uprising. A Nazi shoots her in the back and she falls to the ground, dead and prostrating in front of a hospital. There’s another scene wherein a troupe of Nazis intimidate a small group of Jews, of varying ages, into dancing and singing. In another scene, or rather a string of scenes, a woman is wailing the words ‘why did I do it?’ and we come to find out that she smothered her own child while hiding from Nazis. Another scene shows a woman asking around for her husband; this woman appears several times, each time asking is anyone has seen her husband. It is these scenes that allow us to remain in the first person without losing the impact of the collective trauma. This is done quite gracefully by Polanski.

Captain Wilm Hosenfeld: Thank God, not me. He wants us to survive. Well, that’s what we have to believe. 

Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld

The ray of light in this film is awarded to Nazi Wilm Hosenfeld, who ensured Szpilman’s survival by feeding and concealing him. Whose very existence is a defense against cynicism and the inclination human beings have to parse the world into black or white, good or bad. Of all the things Polanski achieved in this film, just choosing to tell the story is the greatest achievement.

I haven’t tallied up the numbers, but the Holocaust has got to be the most common piece of subject matter where the art of film is concerned. I think it captivates us so in that it challenges everything we presume to know about life, and humankind. The gravity of shared horror is great enough to award the Holocaust a permanent spot in the archive of humanity. Polanski’s masterful representation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s story was one worth watching, and one that will touch you.

Rating: 9/10

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Midnight in Paris (2011)

“You’re in love with a fantasy.”

And so went one of Woody Allen’s most recent reveries, Midnight in Paris, which follows Gil Pender, played by the charmingly befuddled Owen Wilson. There’s something

Directed and Written by Woody Allen

that Woody Allen understands about longing that no one else has the capability of articulating. So like many of his stories, this one is one of a search for fulfillment. Gil Pender is a successful Hollywood screenplay writer who winds up in Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her family. The trip forces Gil to confront the failings of his relationship with Inez and the lack of fulfillment he is getting from his life and his career. At midnight, he travels back in time to a place that he imagines to be ‘the golden age’: Paris in the 1920’s.

The film, like most of Allen’s film, has a wonderful cast. It stars the adorable Owen Wilson. Alongside him is Regina George (a.k.a Rachel McAdams) who gets more evil as she gets blonder. The ‘pedantic gentleman’ Michael Sheen, who impresses in a smaller role, as per usual. Then we get a barrage of psychotically amazing performances from royalty like Kathy

Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston as the Fitzgeralds

Bates, Adrien Brody, Marion Cotillard, Corey Stoll, Alison Pill, and Tom Hiddleston. Sometimes films can get bogged down with too dense a cast, but this orchestration of talents made for a enchanting story.

‘Portrait of a Woman’ by Amedeo Modigliani

The magic starts in when the first time skip sequence starts. When Gil first meets F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the Fitzgeralds, there’s a feeling of being profoundly star stricken. I may have even blushed (all due to the incomparably handsome Tom Hiddleston, I’m sure). There were also many peripheral appearances and mentions of sentimental historical characters like Josephine Baker, T.S. Eliot, Cole Porter, Man Ray, Amedeo Modigliani, Henry Matisse and Edgar Degas.  The appearance of those fixtures in our culture, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso, Dali, summons the pure mass of artistry they brought. It calls forth those valuable cultural magics that were followed by a recess in love and true art that has extended into ours lives and into the life of Gil Pender. The feeling is truly wonderful, and it is where Allen makes a connection with the intellectual.

Gil: That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.

I would say that the true magic of the film lies not with the time travel, and the beautiful shadows of legends bouncing around the walls of Gil Pender’s mind. No, it lies in the truth that Allen is attempting to communicate through this journey. That dissatisfaction with the present is not an ailment that can be cured by any supernatural escapism. That escape in any form, while romantic and quite wonderful, is not the answer. That the answer to fulfillment and happiness isn’t confined to any particular bracket in time. It’s a worthy message, one communicated beautifully, charmingly and romantically.

Where the film could have improved is in the personal relationships in the present. Gil’s fiancee, Inez, was an altogether one dimensional character with absolutely no

Michael Sheen being pedantic

redeeming qualities. As were her parents. The movie was mostly great but a truly great film cannot ignore the opportunity to develop characters, even if the message ultimately has nothing to do with them. The romantic dilemma Gil experiences between Adrianna (Marion Cotillard) and Inez is one that could have been strengthened by a more developed character in Inez.

Allen finds a way to do a million important things in one film. It was stupendously humorous. Michael Sheen’s character Paul provided many good laughs, seeing as he played an insufferable “pseudo-intellectual.” Allen managed to inject humor into the story in every context without losing the heart of the drama. Also, there was an overarching theme of Parisian worship. The romance of the place was really at the crux of this very human story. All of that along with the inclusion of the famous artworks and authentic costuming, this movie achieved authenticity though messaging and atmosphere.

Gertrude Stein: The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.

Woody Allen has a way of taking what appears to be a generic idea, nostalgia, and making it into something very true, and real. Even with the fantastical ‘going back in time’ plot point, somehow the experiences of Gil Pender with the great artists of the 20th century feels close to home. So how does he do it? I think he knows how to tap into some of the most fundamental human dilemmas. Nostalgia for a time you never knew. The feeling that you do not belong. The feeling that you’ve wasted your life. All of which are a part of the internal monologue of our collective psyche as human beings. It’s powerful because it knows you, and it talks to you, and tells you you’re not alone.

Rating: 8.9/10