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Keys to survival 

Polanski comes home for The Pianist

Wladyslaw Szpilman, the title role in Roman Polanski's The Pianist, is a quintessential Polanski character in a quintessential Polanski situation: cruelly cut off from the world like the women and men fatally imprisoned in their apartments in The Tenant, Rosemary's Baby or Repulsion.

Adrien Brody, the star of The Pianist, is an internal actor not unlike the career-obsessed actor played by John Cassavetes in Rosemary's Baby or the reserved, frosty Peter Coyote of Bitter Moon. What makes Wladyslaw and The Pianist so extraordinarily fascinating is not only how they fit so well into Polanski's oeuvre, but how Wladyslaw's experiences so dramatically echo Polanski's own life events.

Polanski is most often remembered for two grisly bookends in a life peppered with tragedy: the 1969 murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by Manson acolytes, and his flight from America after a charge of statutory rape in 1977. But Polanski's earliest experiences as a Polish Jew hidden away from the Nazis during WWII probably better explain the conspiracies, black humor and solitude that pack his films.

Like Wladyslaw, a Holocaust survivor on whose memoirs The Pianist is based, Polanski survived World War II by hiding out in a series of Polish homes. A Jewish child whose life depended on the whims of his keepers, Polanski surely learned hard lessons about the baser depths of human nature that led to the unique combination of cynicism and humanity which would later define his films.

Wladyslaw is a celebrated Polish pianist living with two sisters and a brother in a cramped Warsaw apartment. Though he is on the cusp of the courtship and marrying years, Wladyslaw instead becomes engrossed in grimmer dramas, as the Nazis begin imposing greater and greater restrictions on Poland's Jewish citizens.

What Polanski conveys particularly well in The Pianist is the slow, incremental aspect of the Nazis' anti-Semitism, and how the gradually increasing restrictions experienced by Wladyslaw and his family fed on the Jewish disbelief that anything as horrifying as the Holocaust would happen. As to why the Jews never rose up or defended themselves but seemed to go willingly to their graves, Polanski shrewdly conveys the slowly dawning horror which he -- and Wladyslaw -- experienced firsthand. As the director would remark in his 1984 autobiography Roman, "The Germans' method was to lull people into passivity, to foster a sense of hope, to persuade the Jews that things couldn't possibly be that bad."

Polanski captures the bureaucratic dimensions to the horrors, which at first seem procedural and couched in authoritarian instruction but which eventually led to the segregation of the Jews in their final stop before the gas chambers -- the Warsaw ghetto.

Polanski conveys that psychological dimension to the Germans' persecutions in an ugly scene where Jews confined in the Warsaw ghetto must wait for a passing trolley car that takes non-Jews directly through the center of the ghetto, to underscore the sense of "normal" life continuing despite the horrors of the Jews' segregation. While the ghetto residents wait for the passing train, some laughing German soldiers create an impromptu, humiliating freak show, forcing gangly, tall women to dance with short men, and old women to dance with young ones. In that brief scene Polanski conveys the viciousness of the German assaults on human dignity, and their willful desire to strip Jews of every last shred of humanity.

Polanski also shows the brutal isolation that the war inspired. Once in the ghetto Wladyslaw and his family watch helplessly one evening from the windows of their own apartment building as an old man in a wheelchair is tossed like a load of rags from the high balcony across the street onto the pavement below. The sense of helpless confinement, of each individual family operating in cruel separation from others, proves one of the most disturbing and brutal truths of The Pianist.

Like some perverse extension of the film audience, Wladyslaw seems to spend his entire wartime experience, both within the ghetto and once he escapes, watching from windows as various horrors unfold. That perspective seems a significant reflection of Polanski's own bystander, child's perspective of the war -- a perspective he repeats again and again in the passive spectators who make up his later film protagonists.

For fans of Polanski's work, the fascinating question will be how much of The Pianist's situations and visuals are hybrid memories of Wladyslaw and Polanski's own life experiences and how much they are merely echoes of Polanski's film fixations that have developed independently of his personal experiences. Is Wladyslaw's vantage, peering out from between curtains at the Warsaw ghetto he only recently fled, his own?

Or are they more intrinsically Polanski's view -- that of a young boy hiding out with Polish farmers and peeking into the lives of his neighbors and finding cruelty and horror abiding in their apartments and in their hearts? No matter what the answer, The Pianist is a profound meditation on how deeply the Holocaust altered two artists' lives.

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