Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2003 / 13 Shevat, 5763

Burt Prelutsky

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Consumer Reports

Chopin doesn't a hero make

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | An old friend of mine, who isn't Jewish, recently told me I had to see "The Pianist." Inasmuch as the only movie he and I had ever disagreed about was "The Untouchables," which I liked and he didn't, I promptly rushed out to see Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama.

Well, now my friend and I have a second movie about which we can agree to disagree.

It is difficult for anyone, but especially a Jew such as myself, to suggest that any movie dealing with Nazi atrocities isn't a masterpiece. We must, after all, never forget. And of course we shouldn't forget. Most of us, after all, are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. One can't see such movies without being reminded how close we came to being herded off in cattlecars and gassed at Auschwitz.

But even if we wanted to forget, we couldn't. For even without such celebrated movies as "Life is Beautiful," "Au Revoir les Enfants," "Sophie's Choice," "Schindler's List" and now "The Pianist," the Holocaust remains a fairly recent event. Unlike, say, slavery, it's not merely the great-great- grandchildren of the victims who live among us, but the victims, themselves, the concentration camp numbers still branded on their forearms.

That having been said, I contend that "The Pianist" is an overlong, mediocre, motion picture. Granted, it is nearly impossible for such a movie not to have its dramatic, heart-rending, scenes. In order to understand the cruelty of the Nazis, Polanski proves you needn't show babies being bayoneted; you merely have to show German soldiers humiliating old, crippled Jews by making them dance in a public street.

But I think we should expect more from a movie than a series of such scenes that merely remind us that the Nazis were swine--and that, yes, in spite of what some people say, wars sometimes need to be fought.

My main problem with the film is that its "hero," an acclaimed Polish pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman, is the most passive protagonist I have ever encountered in a movie. Although he is on the run most of the time, he very rarely plays an active role in his own survival. It is mainly through the courage of others, Jews and gentiles alike, who risk their own lives to provide him with food and shelter that he manages to evade capture for as long as he does. While that may be factual, Szpilman having been a real person, it makes for a very uncompelling character.

At one point, Szpilman makes plans to commit suicide by hurtling himself out a window if his capture should ever appear to be imminent; however, a short time later, he's shown making his escape by crossing a street where a gun battle between Polish insurgents and German soldiers has taken place--and Szpilman doesn't even bother to pick up a pistol. The man thereby raises passivity to new heights, or depths, depending on your point of view. Understand, I'm not suggesting he should have turned into "Two- Gun" Szpilman, the John Wayne of Warsaw. But not to pick up a gun, even for the purpose of shooting himself in order to avoid torture?!

In the end, the man survived. Which is a very good thing. However, emotionally, it was the off-screen death of the German officer who had shown Szpilman kindness and generosity that had the greater resonance. By that, I mean I felt more pain over his demise in a Soviet prison camp than joy over Szpilman's surviving to play Chopin in post-war Poland.

The German officer, by an accident of birth, wound up on the wrong side, but it was he who turned Szpilman from a victim into a human being. It wasn't simply that he allowed him to play the piano. It wasn't even that he gave him food and drink and his own overcoat. Rather, it was the fact that, in parting, he asked the Polish Jew his name. Amazingly, and shamefully, Szpilman never asked him his.

Finally, the movie disappointed me because Polanski's moral point seemed to be that it was a wonderful thing that Szpilman survived because he performed Chopin so beautifully. My reaction to that is that the world is in far greater need of decent men than talented ones if only because they are always in shorter supply.

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JWR contributor Burt Prelutsky is a veteran TV writer whose credits include, among others, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show and Diagnosis Murder. Comment by clicking here. Visit his website by clicking here.

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© 2003, Burt Prelutsky