I’m embarrassed to admit that the first Holocaust film to deeply affect me was “Schindler’s List” – yet I take comfort in the fact that I’m certainly not alone. As a twenty-three-year old Jew when Spielberg’s epic was released, I was moved to tears by its profundity. Or so I thought. It took Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist”, released nearly a decade later, to make me realize I’d merely been manipulated by a beautifully executed, perfectly crafted con job.
Leaving the theater after seeing Polanski’s masterpiece, I was overcome with anger at my earlier naivete. But why? I’d had no regrets being taken in by “E.T.”. Perhaps because Spielberg had presented “E.T.” as pure fiction whereas “Schindler’s List” had been based on actual events. I’d been a willing accomplice watching the little alien phone home, secure in the knowledge I was bawling my eyes out at a wonderfully moving fantasy, not over a so-called “truth.” Coming to terms with the fact that “Schindler’s List” was just as much a Hollywood confection, a smoke and mirrors act, as “E.T.” was a bitter pill to swallow.
Not that I’m angry with Spielberg for having tricked me. After all, Steven Spielberg is the great pretender, a pop artist along the lines of Andy Warhol, able to feed the masses and maybe sprinkle in some bites of history here and there. I forget this sometimes. It was only after indulging in a Roman Polanski, six-course meal that I realized how empty “Schindler’s List” really is.
“The Pianist” is moderated like the main character’s beloved concertos. Unlike “Schindler’s List” which plays in a one-note grandiose, Polanski’s film begins with much activity, the hustle and bustle of barely pre-war Warsaw then gradually narrows its focus, becoming sparser as lives are destroyed and buildings burned until only death and destruction surround the lone Szpilman. It’s as if instead of going “over” “Schindler’s List” Polanski decided to go “under.” In contrast to the requisite mass hysteria and mayhem of a Spielberg epic, “The Pianist” is basically a quiet film full of gorgeously shot, haunting images of the ruins of a once cosmopolitan city. Polanski knows the horror inherent in silence, something Spielberg could never begin to comprehend.
As other critics have already pointed out, perhaps the greatest difference between the two pictures lies in the notion of heroes. Spielberg, true to form, chooses the real-life hero Oskar Schindler as the basis of his story, whereas Polanski completely eschews nobility and courage, following the tale of an every-man who survived only by great luck. Not only is “Schindler’s List” shot in black-and-white, it’s told in black-and-white, with good Jews and bad Nazis, the modern day version of a John Ford western. Polanski’s film is much more nuanced with nasty Jews and a heart-of-gold Nazi – a realistic picture of (ghetto) life.
The Holocaust is great material for a thriller and Polanski, a master at suspense, knows this. It’s not surprising he turned down “Schindler’s List” when Spielberg first offered it to him. The showmanship and predictably of a mainstream Hollywood drama cannot possibly shine light on any deeper truths. Spielberg took the easy way out, choosing to shoot scenes that afford an emotional guarantee – close ups of children shaking in fear, a little girl gleefully shouting “Goodbye, Jews!” and pandemonium erupting when the Jews are finally sent like cattle to their death cars. “The Pianist” takes the opposite tactic. The film’s overall feel is one of confused calmness – which makes much more sense since the Warsaw Jews really weren’t sure exactly what was happening! Hysteria and fear are nearly nonexistent in “The Pianist”. Disbelief is the main emotion. This is where Hitchcock’s theory of suspense fits in perfectly. Place that bomb under the table and let it tick away while two people converse unaware beside it. Polanski’s film is more powerful for letting us, the audience, do the “shaking in fear.” We know the horror of the Holocaust and are forced to watch in helpless frustration because the characters on the screen cannot see the bomb before their eyes.
As noted, another obvious difference between the two movies is Spielberg’s use of black-and-white cinematography versus Polanski’s choice of color – notable because shooting black-and-white dates a film, places it historically in a bygone era, while color brings a story to the here and now. I think Polanski’s choice was a crucial one – and correct for reliving the Holocaust on the screen. In black-and-white Spielberg’s film allows us, the audience, to keep a safe distance from the atrocity – it happened “then” – whereas Polanski’s film forces us to face the fact that something so awful as genocide continues up to this very day. The use of color familiarizes, reminds us that “it can’t happen here” doesn’t exist. (In light of the events of September 11th, Polanski’s choice was a timely one as well.)
While “Schindler’s List” favors risk-free shots of lots of cute kids in hiding, “The Pianist” is bold enough to show the seamier side of ghetto life, where an old woman can be robbed of her only meal by an equally elderly man. When her pot of stew falls to the street in the struggle, and the old man begins to lap it up like a dog while the woman beats him in despair, what’s missing in “Schindler’s List” becomes crystal clear. Spielberg, king of Hollywood, never shies away from superficial violence, but he’s afraid to go as deep as Polanski does, all the way down to the rock bottom where humiliation lies. Polanski knows that humiliation is far more painful to watch than violence, more powerfully subversive. It is more disturbing to witness the Nazis in “The Pianist” forcing Jews to dance in the street like puppets than to watch the SS of “Schindler’s List” gunning down extras.
In fact, Spielberg’s violence feels almost falsely gratuitous, his killing done in black-and-white and always from a cozy, long or medium shot distance. Polanski, in contrast, is forever in the audience’s face with his close-ups of murder in color. There’s a pureness, an emotional honesty, to “The Pianist” that is missing in “Schindler’s List”. Spielberg’s film is filled with inorganic scenes – of random violence, of people hiding, Jews running naked in circles for “health exams,” children being loaded onto cars, their mothers chasing madly after them. All these scenes are mere distractions from the tale of Oskar Schindler, increasing the film’s running time without furthering the hero’s story. The images feel forced, as if Spielberg only included them because this is what one shows in a Holocaust movie. Polanski, on the other hand, refuses to give in to such expectations. “The Pianist” never strays from Szpilman’s point of view, only showing the degradation and violence as it relates to the protagonist. In this way Polanski is able to personalize his film. No longer is it “Oh, how sad for the Jews!” but “Oh, how sad for Szpilman!” – thus we as the audience are prevented from taking refuge in the abstract.
While Spielberg allows his characters to question what is happening to them Polanski hasn’t the patience for such philosophizing. As a Holocaust survivor himself he knows that when one is faced with unimaginable horror “why” is useless. You accept and concentrate on survival. This isn’t to say that “The Pianist” is all doom and gloom. Whereas Spielberg’s movie relies for its lighthearted moments on such cute set-ups as a blustery Schindler refusing to save a young woman’s parents then turning around and doing it anyway, a blustery Schindler saving a one-armed man and a blustery Schindler saving a boy, Polanski, true-to-form, is more practical. When Szpilman, wearing a coat given to him by a kind-hearted SS officer, is mistaken for a Nazi and shot at by liberating forces he pleads that he is Polish. “Why are you wearing that coat?” a soldier wonders. “I am cold,” is his no-nonsense reply.
“The Pianist” is shot like a documentary disguised as fiction, with the truth of the Holocaust experience wrapped inside the fantasy of a suspense thriller. “Schindler’s List” is its opposite – a fiction masquerading as documentary with its inclusion of footage that serves no other purpose than that of a history lesson. (The final scene of the real Schindler workers at the hero’s grave simply reinforces this false notion of “documentary.”) Pure Hollywood puffery like the scene in which female laborers are sent to what they think are their deaths only to be showered in water instead of gas, exemplifies the fantasy inside the “truth.” As the women’s cries reach a fevered pitch Spielberg cuts to a close-up of a lone silent worker too terrified to scream. Not only is it interesting to note how little screaming occurs in “The Pianist”, Polanski also offers his own brilliant counterpoint to Spielberg’s scene. When a lone woman can’t stop her hysterics Szpilman’s sister matter-of-factly states that she is “getting on my nerves.” (I couldn’t help but wonder if Polanski thought the same about Spielberg’s Schindler with his cheesy “I could have done more” breakdown at the end of the epic.)
Which brings me to my final point. In “The Pianist”, this lack of screaming and hysteria we’ve come to associate with traumatic situations is twofold. Firstly, in a realistic sense, “losing it” would have most assuredly resulted in a quick death. (In the rare instances Polanski does show mayhem it is in the presence of the less-threatening Jewish police, never the Nazis.) In one of the most dramatic scenes of “The Pianist”, an old man is tossed off a balcony, wheelchair and all, by the Nazis as his family looks on in absolute silence. When Szpilman’s mother (not a member of the poor guy’s family!), who is watching from a window across the street breaks the stillness with her terrified cry, she is immediately quieted by her family – much like Polanski mutes his own film, letting the audience scream inside for his characters. By doing so he forces us to face the deeper degradation that occurs when people are not even allowed to react to the horror around them in a human way.
In “Schindler’s List” a man is spared because of the Nazi Goeth’s inadequacy. The SS officer can’t get any of his guns to work and the scene turns into a comic, almost slapstick moment of pure Hollywood illusion. In “The Pianist” a man is spared when a Nazi stops to reload – until his mere second of hope is dashed with one raw, brutal bullet to the skull. Steven Spielberg the dreamer desperately wants to rewrite history. Roman Polanski the realist knows it’s more important to just aim and shoot.