So where does "The Pianist" fit in Polanski's self-referential spectrum? Steven Spielberg reportedly offered Polanski the opportunity to direct "Schindler's List." But Polanski opted for "The Pianist" after purchasing the rights to Szpilman's memoir, praising the book as "very dry, without sentimentalism or embellishments."
Indeed, the film for much of its running time maintains an emotionally neutral, morally nonjudgmental tone that is all the more effective in contrast to the chilling events it depicts.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 06, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Roman Polanski: A caption with an article about director Roman Polanski in Monday's Calendar section said that the photo showed Polanski and actor Adrien Brody on the set of "The Piano." The film was "The Pianist."
In the movie, several people intervene to spare the life of the desperate musician played by Adrien Brody, including Polish Underground activists, fellow Jews and, in the story's most bizarre twist, a Nazi officer. Several of those who help to save Szpilman from certain death sacrifice their own lives in the process.
"The Pianist" suggests that both civilization and human identity are fragile constructions at best, as Brody's character is transformed from a highly cultured cosmopolitan into a haggard, hunted man living by his wits. After he's miraculously spared from being herded onto the Nazis' concentration camp-bound trains, he takes part in helping to arm the resistance fighters who stage the Warsaw uprising. Later, he expresses his guilt for not having gone down fighting alongside them.
The more socially palatable and therefore conventional message of Spielberg's "Schindler's List" and his other World War II-era opus, "Saving Private Ryan," is that any given human life is neither more nor less valuable than any other. All lives and deaths are, or should be, invested with dignity and love. But in the far bleaker worldview of "The Pianist," some lives, justifiably or not, prevail over others, and death and suffering are as often grotesque, random and meaningless as they are noble, purposeful or humanizing.
Although it depicts numerous acts of courage, mercy and decency, "The Pianist" is far more concerned with the paradoxes and contradictions of human behavior. It's a movie in which even Nazis are shown as both cultured and thuggish, civilized and barbaric. So are their victims, albeit to a far different degree. What matters, in the end, is who stays alive, who's still around when the chaos subsides and order (or at least the illusion of order) is temporarily restored.
It's not hard to imagine that Polanski saw aspects of himself in Szpilman. "[Polanski] has a strong vision of death and sadness inside of him, but since he has such energy, such working power, such desire to do extraordinary things, he prevails." So remarks Pierre-Andre Boutang, identified as "Polanski's friend" in Zenovich's documentary, in an interview meant to contextualize the director's decision to flee the United States. He could be describing the character in "The Pianist."
The crucial difference, of course, is that Szpilman was a victim of the abominable, criminal actions of others. Polanski, in the case for which he remains in the docket of world opinion, was the perpetrator. The pianist's actions in saving himself were defensible; those of Polanski, in the opinion of many, were utterly reprehensible.
Yet however we judge Polanski as a human being, it's worth noting that in "The Pianist" he doesn't make the claim that artists deserve special consideration. In the director's universe, no one merits preferential treatment any more than they necessarily deserve the injustices that befall them. If anything, his movies simply argue that judging any individual's life and actions should be done with caution, in a world where terrible things both within and beyond our control can happen to virtually anyone at any time, and often do.