February 14, 2003


We’ve seen this movie already. We’ve seen it hundreds of times. We’ve seen it much better.

The latest entry in the extensive catalog of Holocaust films adds nothing to our understanding of the many issues surrounding the terrible years of Nazi power. As always, we have the shocking brutality of the German soldiers, and the incomprehensible passivity of the Jewish people as they are led to the slaughter. We get to see innumerable people shot at point blank range. We watch women, children and elderly people kicked, whipped, humiliated and starved. At the center of it all is a main character with no arc, who never changes in the piece, and who survives the War by dumb luck and the kindness of strangers.

But this movie isn’t about the kindness of strangers. It isn’t about why some people are brutal to others. It isn’t about heroism, or the lack of it. I thought, from the title, that it was going to be about the healing power of art or music, but it isn’t really about those things either. The Pianist doesn’t build toward any theme. In resisting a theme, it makes the statement that there are no lessons to be learned from the Holocaust. There is only horror.

I understand that somewhat. That’s how I feel about September 11. But that’s because we are still so close to it. The fact is, there are lessons in September 11, which we will continue to put together as the shock and horror fades. The Pianist seems to me to be an attempt to keep the wounds of the Holocaust fresh. I don’t understand that.

This narrative here unfolds in a very linear way, although it is jammed with repetitive scenes, half of which could have been cut without any diminution in the viewer’s ability to follow the story. Surprisingly in a post-Schindler’s List Holocaust film, there is no attempt in The Pianist to create metaphoric imagery which might have given it a more haunting and deepening power. It is not boring, the way passing a car wreck on the side of the highway is never boring. It is one dreadfully long immersion in horror and suffering and the particular inhumanity that occurred during WWII. We’ve seen this all before. We’ve seen it.

Somebody has to say it. Why do we never see movies about the Gulag, or about the systematic starvation of millions of people by Stalin. We never see movies about the tens of millions who died under Mao. How about stories of the attrocities during the Spanish Civil War? Or the horrible persecutions carried out in the 1920’s against the Church in Mexico? All of these terrible moments in the 20th Century were also times of great heros and saints, but we never see their stories. We keep rehashing the exact same scenes from WWII over and over and over. Nothing new to add. Like scratching an inflamation over and over so that it never heals. We have needed to see stories of the Holocaust. But we need to see the other stories as well. It’s an injustice not to hear their blood crying out from the soil too.

A glaring omission in this movie, is the almost complete absence of any signs of the faith of the Jewish people. God is mentioned twice in three hours. Halfway through the film a Jewish man, watching an act of Nazi brutality states, “It makes me stop believing in God.” Later in the film, a Nazi officer makes a reference to God. I found the lack of reference to God dreadful and unrealistic. This is Polanski’s problem, no doubt, but it really skews a picture which purports to represent other details with graphic detail. It does fit the statement of the whole film, however, because injecting God into things would have also injected in a note of hope. And hope is not wanted here. Only horror.

A cinema storytelling convention is that the main character in a movie should be the one who changes the most. From that standpoint, the main character in The Pianist is the city of Warsaw, Poland. The most impressive moment in the film, is not one of the random acts of Nazi violence, but rather the long slow pull-back which reveals the bombed out hull of Warsaw at the end of the war. Having seen the city in its heydey in 1939 in the early moments of the film, at the end we are shaken to see what WWII really did to the centers of life in Europe. It makes you think about what war is, and the terrible sense of waste and devastation when it is all over. It’s a great moment. But it can’t save this film.

I can’t recommend The Pianist. Rent Schindler’s List. It’s a much more thoughtful, prophetic and better-crafted work of art.

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