A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Roman Polanski charged with rape, 1977
On this day in 1977, the film director Roman Polanski was arrested on a charge of rape by use of drug. He was also charged with perversion, sodomy, a lewd and lascivious act on a child under 14 and with furnishing a controlled substance to a child under 14. Samantha Gailey was the victim, a 13-year-old he had been photographing as part of an assignment for French Vogue. The shoot took place at the actor Jack Nicholson’s house. Nicholson was away skiing. Polanski pleaded not guilty to all charges but later as part of a plea bargain deal changed his plea to guilty to the lesser crime of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse (ie statutory rape – sex with a minor who is sexually mature and “willing”). Polanski agreed to undergo psychiatric evaluation at a state prison for 90 days. But first he went to Europe to finish shooting on a film. He returned, spent 42 days at Chino State Prison, then expected to be put on probation, as the prosecuting attorney had been suggesting. When Polanski learned that the judge seemed to be inclined to jail him, he fled the US and has never returned.
The Pianist (2002, dir: Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski’s films often deal with guilt. But in The Pianist he confronts the subject head on, in a film that’s personal in more than one sense. Polanksi was born in Paris but returned aged four with his parents to their native Poland in time to become embroiled in the invasion by the Germans. His city, Krakow, was ghettoised and his Jewish family were ultimately taken away to concentration camps, where they died. Roman survived.
The Pianist tells the story of a gifted artist, a pianist, who suffers a similar fate, his life, family, friends, city, everything is destroyed around him but he survives. The city is Warsaw, not Krakow, but the parallels with Polanski’s own life can’t be swept aside. Nor does the pianist (Adrien Brody) survive by wit, cunning or heroism. It’s just blind luck, for the most part, a touch of common sense, the determination to carry on – everyday human attributes, nothing special. It’s this that marks The Pianist out as different; it’s not a war film about the good people doing the heroic thing. It’s about flawed people, proud privileged people, getting by. It even introduces a decent German (played here by Thomas Kretschmann). For this reason the book on which the film was based – by pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman – was suppressed by the Soviets when they took over in Poland. Not simple and direct enough to serve as propaganda.
To make a drama work from so little in the way of heroics, we really to be invested in this character of the unheroic Szpilman. And we really are. Because Polanski has spent time detailing Szpilman’s solid bourgeois mitteleuropean life in Warsaw before things get nasty. He’s helped by the expressiveness of Brody’s face, a canvas of emotions, though it’s often more a bewildered “why me?” that’s painted on there than anything else. Polanski is also working at a philosophical level, his central figure being an artist – “the antenna of the race” as Ezra Pound put it – art at the time of the Second World War being one of the moral barriers between humans and animals. So much for that idea. And as Szpilman scrambles through the ruins towards the end of the film, after almost all of his city has been reduced to rubble, the look on his face is not the triumphal look of the survivor, but the troubled guilty look of the man who has lost everything, and yet is still here, a man whose ambition is still to play the piano on the radio even though playing the piano now means nothing beyond the prettiness of the notes.
- Polanski’s most personal film
- A unique war movie
- The remarkable scenes in the ruins of Krakow
- Adrien Brody’s Oscar winning performance
The Pianist – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014