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The Pianist 

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It’s been a hard winter, and Rachel and I both wanted to take the Sunday afternoon and see a movie together. We saw that the Polanski film The Pianist has gotten great reviews and Oscar nominations, so we went to a bargain matinee this afternoon.

And walked out of the theater about 40 minutes into the film. It was handsomely mounted, and wonderfully acted. But there is too much heartbreak already in the world right now to give this heartbreaking film the attention it (probably) deserves.

We did not know it was a portrait of the Warsaw Uprising of 1943-44. At least, I think that’s where it was going. I just got so tired of anxiously crossing and uncrossing my legs and looking away from the screen. When they dumped an old man in a wheelchair from a third story balcony, that was my cue to stand up and leave.

The protagonist, Spzilman the piano teacher [pictured right, on my blog at http://www.xanga.com/item.asp?user=mfinley&tab=weblogs&uid=12040281], was a young man who strongly resembles my wife’s deceased father, Daniel Frazin. And my own son Jon [pictured, left]. That same subtle, intelligent, slightly helpless expression in the face of such abominations.

Rachel has made a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. I have read many accounts of the Holocaust, and spent time at the museum in Washington. We will never know how many European ancestors we lost in the killings. But there is a sense in which we know they were all us.

I am told a good movie is out now about Hitler’s secretary, and there is no live action, just a face talking into the camera. That was how Claude Lanzmann’s pre-Schindler’s List documentary masterpiece Shoah was made as well, as oral history, not as Technicolor adventure.

These movies knew the horrors were already horrible; they did not benefit from milking. In fact, the truths are so wretched that a 10-foot stick is necessary to flip the rock and see what twists and writhes in the suddenness of light.
I’m not saying don’t see The Pianist. How could I? I didn’t see it. It’s probably great.

I’m saying, it hurt me too much to sit through it.

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About Mike

  • It is worth watching to the end though I can understand your reaction if you aren’t prepared for it. It isn’t manipulative in the way that Schindler’s List is.

    Blindspot: Hitler’s Secretary is in opening slowly in large cities. It opens Friday in San Francisco along with another film on the Holocaust, Costa Gravis’ Amen.

    Claude Lanzmann has a film Sobibor on an uprising at that death camp which I saw at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival last year. It is mainly made up of an interview with one survivor.

  • I regret not seeing it. I just kinda freaked out.

    And I have read up on it since, and understand better where Polanski was going. I hope to catch it on the smaller screen some day.

    I know what you mean about Schindler. But … it was still easier for me to watch. Perhaps the world was not knee-deep in PTSD that year, for openers.

    Second, the Schindler story itself offered hope for a few, and that gave hope to viewers. In the first 50 minutes of this movie, on the other hand, I had nothing to grab hold of … and I fell.

  • I actually just saw it this weekend, and was going to post my review of it here, but I couldn’t get my act together. It was disturbing, but brilliant.

    I do understand where you’re coming from though, Michael. My wife, who works in the field of domestic violence, had a similar response to you (although she did not leave). She sees horror and senseless violence daily, albeit on a person-by-person, rather than population scale.

    I think the movie benefits from seeing it in a big dark theater uninterrupted. However, I can see how more people might be comfortable watching at home, hitting pause and taking a breather when needed. My suggestion would be, if you want to try again, see it as a matinee, so you have the time and energy to find ways to lift your spirits afterwards.

  • Ah. You did go to a matinee. Missed that on first reading. Wait for it on video, but please see it.

  • Emma Catling

    What none of you seem to realise is that it is only by watching films like ‘The Pianist’ and ‘Schindler”s List’ that we can in any way hope to stop such horrors like those depicted from happening again! Given the media frenzy culture in which we live our children learn much more about history and moratlity form the TV and films than they ever do in the class room or at home, and as wrong as that may be, the fact that there is a medium that can at least attempt to teach deceny and virtues to our future generations should not be abandoned.
    Polansky and Speilberg may be film makers, they may make their living from providing us with entertainment, but I do not believe that either of them intended their films to be watched solely for that purpose. The very fact that I am engaging in discussion with you demonstrates that they have achieved their goal – to get people to interact and think about the awful atrocities that have been done in the name of humanity and to try to understand why we live in a world where this can still take place (I write this the day after mass graves were found in Iraq). The reason Mike that you had to leave the cinema means that in many ways the director has hit a chord with you, I too felt that the easiest thing in the world would be to walk out – but Wladyslaw Szpilman could not simply walk out – and I felt that I owed it to him, to his memory and to that of his family and the millions of others who died, to stay, to watch, to try to understand. Polanski wasn’t showing us violence simply for dramatic effect (although I agree it did achieve that) but because it actually happened – that and much worse. There are different ways of making films as you all have suggested, but that doesn’t mean one way is better than the other. Would we be here engaging with this film if it had simply been a monologue to camara by Szpilman – I don’t think so!
    And how can you say that The Pianist offered no hope – that is surely one of the main reasons for telling it, that it offers the greatest example of hope possible, of one man’s ability to overcome the worst possible adversity, to live in fear of death for everyday day for six long years and then to triumph on the world stage, as one of the greatest pianists that ever lived.