Very few directors from the wild years of American film are still making movies of any importance. Taxi Driver's Martin Scorsese is an exception, but his colleagues, like Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), have filled-out into Hollywood kings or faded back into television, like Dog Day Afternoon's Sidney Lumet. Roman Polanski, however, has returned. This year, he stunned audiences with The Pianist, a film based on Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoirs of surviving as a Jew in Warsaw during the Holocaust.
Szpilman is played by Adrien Brody, who becomes a corpse of a man during the film, animated only by a passion to make music again. Early in the movie, while playing Chopin during a bombing, he barely registers the chaos around him. It's not ignorance, however; what Brody conveys is the unidentifiable strangeness of war and inhumanity on that scale. We go through our lives assuming that no holocaust lies ahead in our day. How are we to react when it happens?
It's easy to see why Brody was honored with the best actor Oscar. His work, particularly in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, has always been remarkable. Here, the movie hinges upon him. And on that fulcrum, Roman Polanski brings a vision that few other directors could. Like Brody, Polanski won an Oscar for this film. He deserved it -- but then he deserved it back in 1974 for Chinatown and even earlier for Rosemary's Baby. But The Pianist is the film he may have been destined to make, being himself a survivor -- almost by chance, like Szpilman -- of the Holocaust in Warsaw.
Much more than Holocaust tales, however, both Polanski and Szpilman's stories are about the vagaries of life that lead some people to death and leave others alive with memories. But one suspects that Szpilman's tale rings true for Polanski on other levels as well. Szpilman was a moderately talented musician with an immoderate artistic passion -- something that leads to some breathtaking scenes between Brody and a piano during his hiding. Like Polanski, Szpilman filled his life with the only thing left to him: art. And so at the film's beginning, when Brody's lanky fingers barely hesitate over the piano keys, one catches a hint of the singular spirit that has driven Polanski for so long. Szpilman left us a testament to this; Polanski is living proof.