Saturday, February 05, 2005

the pianist

watched roman polanski's the pianist the other night. went looking for some classic kurosawa samurai flicks, but those suckers are expensive. i remembered kat had mentioned the pianist when we were talking about adrien brody a coupla weeks ago. we'd seen him do a turn as the local idiot who serves as the catalyst for the action in m. night shyamalan's disappointing the village, and we were trying to think of some better roles he'd had. he was the punk rocker guy in spike lee's summer of sam, where spike typically got the details of the, um, dark underside of saturday night fever right but totally blew it when it came to depicting noo yawk punk ca. '77. for one thing, nyc punks didn't have extreme scissorhead mohawks; that particular affectation came after the virus spread to l.a. and d.c. beyond that, the "punk band" in spike's movie sounded more like '80s goth than what was playing at cbgb's at the time. and brody had a bit part in terrence malick's the thin red line, which was probably the best of the spate of world war II flicks that appeared around the end of the century, even though i was warned off it by a bud who said he'd walked out on it when he went to see it in the theater. malick's lyrical film was both better than the james jones novel that inspired it and the crappy 1964 film version andrew marton directed. brody played private fife, jones' alter ego who malick reduced to a relatively minor character.

like most people, my buddy preferred steven spielberg's take on "the good war," but i'm a little more ambivalent about saving private ryan. while the battle scenes were harrowing enough to be almost unwatchable, they probably did as good of a job as anyone's done at capturing the chaos and horror of combat. spielberg typically overplayed his hand, though, making the characters heroic archetypes that really weren't that far from your stereotypical '50s world war II pic. he pulled the same gambit with his holocaust film, schindler's list: while the first hour was almost too stark to watch, you also got the sense that as difficult as it was to look at, it was only a simulacrum of the real-life horrors wrought by the "final solution." near the end, though, i remember telling the person i saw it with in the theater, "if he [the oskar schindler character] starts crying, i'm walking out." and he did, of course, but we stuck it out, and the final sequence, where the actors accompanied the survivors they portrayed to a holocaust memorial in israel, almost redeemed the film -- certainly gave it a power and authenticity it wouldn't have otherwise had. (the documentary that accompanied the hbo band of brothers series accomplished much the same thing -- reminded you that yes, these events were real, and here are the men who lived through them.)

spielberg gets a pass for schindler's list, though, on the basis of his farming some of the profits into the survivors of the shoah visual history foundation, an outfit dedicated to documenting the testimonies of holocaust survivors. this year marks the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the death camps, and it's sobering to realize that within a decade or so, there will be no one left who experienced the holocaust firsthand. it's important to keep that memory alive, i think, even though that knowledge hasn't prevented the world from turning a blind eye to genocides like those in rwanda and darfour. back in the '80s, when i was stationed in abilene with the b-1 bomber, i had a bud who was both an air force historian and a jew. he took a world war II class at abilene christian university, the premise of which, my friend was appalled to discover, was that the holocaust never happened. the instructor was a published and recognized authority in his field, too. that a professor of history could stand up on his hind legs and deny the reality of reams of documentary evidence and eyewitness testimony kinda defies belief, but then again, i suppose that discipline is as affected by its practitioners' political agendas as any social science. still, a scary thought -- persistent denial of reality, on the personal or societal level, is, after all, a sign of madness.

wladyslaw szpilman, the protagonist in polanski's visually stunning movie, isn't the kind of cod-heroic character you usually see in films like this. as kat pointed out, his actions are often motivated by pure self-interest, but that doesn't diminish his humanity or his value as a witness. through his eyes, we see the persecution of the jews following the nazi invasion of poland, their isolation in the warsaw ghetto, the death camps (which we only hear about, since szpilman escaped them through luck or chance, although his family perished at treblinka), the warsaw ghetto rising of 1943 and the larger warsaw rising following the d-day landings in 1944, which the red army watched from across the vistula while the germans brutally subdued the polish home army -- kinda like the americans in 1991 watching saddam's gunships cut down the iraqis who rose up against saddam at our then-president's urging. (in one scene where szpilman, hiding out in an apartment, watches the beginning of the jewish uprising, i couldn't help thinking, "insurgents.") a great, depressing, and ultimately uplifting film, although not in the usual cheap, hot-button way.


Post a Comment

<< Home