survivor: Brody in The Pianist.
a Minor Key
by Roman Polanski
The most meaningful course I ever took was Dr. Roselle Chartock’s
high school class on the Holocaust. Many parents protested
their children’s participation in this course; one of the
fears was that we would be subjected to gruesome details.
However, aside from an initial crash course in the horror—films
of the camps, the victims, roomfuls of human hair or bones
made into furniture—which lasted maybe a day or two, the class
immersed us in issues of individual and group responsibility,
the nature of humanity and human dignity, the use of propaganda,
and so forth. Hardly a day goes by when something from this
course doesn’t come to mind, or help me in measuring my reaction
to, say, an atrocity somewhere in the world.
Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, set in World War
II Warsaw, reminded me a lot of that class. Wladyslaw Szpilman
(Adrien Brody), the title character, enjoys a middle-class
existence playing piano on Polish radio and living with his
intellectual parents, brother and two sisters. When the Nazis
invade Poland, the Szpilmans decide to stay, believing the
invaders’ falsely reassuring posters that the Jews will be
protected. Little by little, the lives of the family and their
neighbors are restricted as the Germans institute a series
of administrative rules that, of course, marginalize them;
ultimately, they are herded into the Warsaw ghetto and then,
finally, to cattle cars bound for Treblinka. These scenes
are filmed with dispatch, economically pointing out how people
like the Szpilmans attempted to get along by cooperating with
the authorities—a tack that was perhaps easier to follow when
confronted daily by incidences of Nazi brutality and increasing
numbers of corpses littering the streets.
Polanski’s camera avoids lingering on individual scenes of
grotesqueness or inhumanity, and it completely evades the
sentimentality that derailed Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
Rather than focusing on isolated incidents, the director forces
us to take it all in as part of one big sweeping panorama
of history, and in the end, this decision pays off. We get
this sense of history slowly unfolding as the Szpilmans await
deportation: Amid the mass throng of Jews, some reassuringly
tell each other that of course the Nazis won’t kill them since
this is their largest labor force, while children hawk candies
for outrageously high sums. As one cynic notes, what do these
junior salesmen think they’re going to do with the money?
Wladyslaw’s family combine their meager resources to buy a
caramel, which the father splits into six equal pieces. This
last shared meal has somber notes of a communion service,
but again, Polanski doesn’t dwell on it. Contrasting the lengthy
wait at the deportation site is the swiftness with which the
pianist is plucked from his doom (his family all perished
in the camps) and cast adrift, utterly on his own, in the
abandoned, litter- and corpse-strewn ghetto. The camera gives
us a quick shot of numerous suitcases left behind, and that
is all, before going on to the second half of the story, which
involves Wladyslaw’s attempts to stay alive in occupied territory.
Here the movie’s pace changes dramatically, slowing down somewhat
to give us an idea of the intensely long period of time in
which the protagonist had to wait before liberation. From
his escape from a workforce in the ghetto, to hiding out in
locked apartments with the help of good-hearted strangers,
to living like an animal in the shelled-out remains of apartment
houses, Szpilman persevered with an odd mix of pluck and passivity.
Brody, who heretofore has usually played wiseass good guys,
is astonishingly good in depicting the lengths that one will
go to in order to survive, and in evoking the very surreal,
even comic, nature of this quest. He goes from foppish, dreamy
young man to a scarecrow outfitted in a German officer’s greatcoat
and a Jesus of Nazareth beard in a way that makes us feel
that we’ve been along the entire time.
Polanski makes the brave argument that survival under such
conditions depends in part on the kindness of strangers—including,
perhaps, the enemy—even if that kindness is inconsistent.
Case in point is German officer Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann),
who happens upon the bedraggled pianist late in the game and
asks him to play for him. The fact that this bombed-out mansion
houses an intact (and in-tune) grand piano, or that the enfevered
and shattered Szpilman can still play without error, may seem
more ludicrous than surreal, but Polanski boldly carries on
to a climax in which the Jewish pianist and the German officer
silently and together possess a moment in which the shared
histories of their European cultural history momentarily gains
advantage over the history of that continent’s infighting
Again, a film like Life Is Beautiful might have made
this officer a complete ass, or worse, had him risking life
and limb to protect Szpilman. Here, while Hosenfeld does provide
Szpilman with some food and news, he continues to call him
“Jew” until he’s about to decamp. Polanski is vastly interested
in the great mysteries of life, how one person lives whereas
another, perhaps less passive, dies, or how one gesture can
transform a moment even as it clouds the picture of both its
donor and its recipient. Moreover, he is obsessed with the
ways in which an ordinary person reacts to forces far greater.
This was, of course, a central point in the still-creepy-after-all-these-years
Rosemary’s Baby, and to an equal, if less demonic,
extent in Chinatown. With The Pianist, the filmmaker
comes full circle, conveying with full force and no sentimentality,
the ways (heroic or otherwise) in which that ordinary person
reacts to and lives within the hell of war. If Dr. Chartock
were still teaching at my high school, I’m willing to bet
that she’d include this movie in her Holocaust curriculum.
Spy Who Tried to Fool Me
by Roger Donaldson
The CIA is experiencing a surge of popularity onscreen these
days, and there are reasons why covert ops have always been
the preferred fodder for thrillers. But the personalities
behind them are frozen into formula as rigidly as the recycled
Cold War rhetoric of Bush II: The Sequel. In The
Recruit—a snazzy if unexciting foray into the inner workings
of “the Farm,” the agency’s training camp—an older and wiser
spook lures a rebellious firebrand into the fold, for the
greater good of God and country. On the heels of Morgan Freeman
and Ben Affleck (Sum of All Fears) and Anthony Hopkins
and Chris Rock (Bad Company), we now have Al Pacino
and Colin Farrell in the father-figure and like-a-son roles.
The pairing is the best thing in the movie, aside from the
high-tech surveillance toys that fill in for plot twists in
these high-anxiety thrillers.
Pacino is Walter Burke, a CIA recruiter and instructor who
has a genius for pushing buttons. Which is how he entraps
James Clayton (Farrell), an encryption wunderkind fresh out
of MIT, into signing on for a job. James is athletic, attractive
and extremely competitive, and speaks several valuable languages,
such as Farsi—his father, before his untimely death, was an
oil executive stationed in various international hotspots.
Not that James is going to any such places. As Walter tells
him, everything is a test, and the film’s brain teasing comes
from not knowing if James’ extreme predicaments are real or
just character-exposing setups devised by the wily Walter.
During training, which includes learning to hold up under
torture, James falls for his classmate, Layla (Bridget Moynahan,
previously paired with Affleck in Sum), who is just
as athletic, attractive and competitive as he is. Walter manipulates
James’ desire to please him under cover of manipulating James’
desire for Layla. One training exercise involves picking up
“assets” in a nearby bar—a handy skill should the next wave
of global terrorism be perpetrated by nightclubbing postgrads.
But the real intent of the exercises is to turn up the heat
between the two gorgeous and potentially lethal recruits,
on the flimsy pretext that one of them could be a mole.
The photogenic Farrell (Hart’s War) hasn’t been tested
as an actor yet, and so far, he appears to be typecast as
the brunette Brad Pitt—a few good moments in Minority Report
excepted. Pacino, it seems, can barely disguise his delight
in stealing scenes from his charismatic costar, and he’s in
delectably satanic mode here, releasing each syllable as though
pulling the trigger on a stun gun, and wearing a beatnik goatee
that’s more subversive than James’ tattoos and two-day stubble.
As wily as Walter, Pacino plays the supposedly covert instructor
as a motor-mouthed showboat, adding a welcome shading of humor
to the abruptly silly ending.
Directed by Reggie Rock
A few years ago, Los Angeles New Times scribe Michael
Gougis wrote an article about the African-American biker subculture
in Southern California. Everyone associated with its eponymous
film adaptation, Biker Boyz, says the article—which
detailed very private, formalized groups of riders who lived
and rode by a specific code—is terrific. The film, however,
has apparently seized on the aspects of the story most easily
translated into familiar Hollywood clichés, with sadly predictable
Smoke (Laurence Fishburne) is the “King of Cali,” the fastest
rider on the scene. He leads a gang called the Black Knights
in races against other gangs. (These “gangs” are clubs, not
crime organizations.) Smoke’s posse includes Soul Train (Orlando
Jones), Motherland (Djimon Hounsou), and tough girl Half-Pint
(Salli Richardson-Whitfield). All the other riders want to
take Smoke down, including Dogg (Kid Rock) and Kid (Derek
Luke). Kid has a personal, father-son-style beef with Smoke.
Much time is taken up with trash-talking and elaborating the
arcane rules of the game. It all may be based in reality,
but the film makes it seem hackneyed.
When it comes right down to it, a motorcycle flick like this
lives or dies on its racing sequences. From that perspective,
consider this paragraph an autopsy. Bikes racing at speeds
up to 165 mph should be thrilling, but, to begin with, the
editing is disjointed. Director Reggie Rock Bythewood hasn’t
a clue how to give us a sense of speed or danger. The showy
tricks he employs, like fast crowd shots and obvious CGI imagery
(supposedly from the racers’ perspectives), do not work. There
is some excitement in the trick riding—bikers popping wheelies
or standing up on their bikes in the middle of traffic—but
trick riding isn’t what the movie is supposed to be about.
Worse, too much of the film is just plain technically sloppy.
The continuity in some scenes is mind-bogglingly bad. Not
to get all film-geeky, but in a few important scenes actors
are in glaringly different positions from shot to shot, their
emotional moments destroyed by poor camera direction and unsympathetic
cutting. These are mistakes that might be forgivable in a
low-budget indie film but are mortal sins in a studio flick.
What’s left to like? Not much. Many of the actors already
were motorcycle enthusiasts, and it shows. They look comfortable
just hanging out on the bikes. Fishburne proves again he can
lend suave cool to an action cutout character; Hounsou again
lends grit and gravitas to a small role in an unworthy film;
Luke again shows great potential in an underwritten part;
Rock proves again that a pop star need not have much in the
way of acting skill to land an important part in a motion
picture. The original concept—telling the story of a fascinating
African-American subculture—was fine. The result is not.