Directed by Menno Meyjes
A recurring refrain in film reviewing says it’s dangerous to depict Holocaust themes in a drama, because drama cannot compete with reality’s horror. But for all their cliches, falsehoods, dramatic shortcuts and crude grasping after "entertainment values," movies are still the closest thing we have to a collective memory. Critics who habitually discourage filmmakers from engaging with the Holocaust risk abetting the Holocaust deniers—or, at the very least, becoming the journalist equivalent of one of those parents who tries to shut out the memory of long-ago family misfortune by warning children, "We don’t talk about that."
One cannot simply declare a whole section of history off-limits to filmmakers out of fear that they’ll do a less than perfect job of portraying it; the possibility of kitsch (or trash) is the price we pay for the freedoms of popular art. Two new movies are destined to reignite this controversy: The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s drama about a Polish musician evading death at Nazi hands by any means necessary, and Max, an intellectual fantasia about the relationship between young wannabe-artist Adolf Hitler and a Jewish art dealer. One is close to a masterpiece; the other, however, embodies everything the "No Holocaust movies" contingent keeps warning us against.
The Pianist, loosely based on the true tale of Polish pianist Wladislav Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a quiet observer who survived the Holocaust through a combination of resourcefulness and sheer dumb luck, could be the best dramatic feature ever made on this subject. It covers the same appalling period in European history as did Schindler’s List, and contains anecdotes similar to those in Spielberg’s movie. The differences are perhaps more striking: Spielberg’s story took a literally panoramic view of events, attempting to convey the full historical impact of the Holocaust, while Polanski takes a close-up, nearly interior approach, depicting almost every event from his protagonist’s point of view. Another important distinction: Spielberg believes in good and evil, and he looks for heroic (or at least decent) qualities in nearly every character, while Polanski sees only behavior, and self-interested behavior at that. His protagonists can rarely be described as "heroes"; they’re too alienated, deluded, selfish and screwed-up.
Differences aside, The Pianist is superior both as popular art and as a teaching tool. Like so many Polanski movies, it is fundamentally a thriller, yet there are no cheap thriller effects, no images of derring-do. As the Nazis gradually tighten their grip on the Jews of Warsaw, Szpilman passes through a variation of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. He initially refuses to believe that the Nazis’ measures are anything more than an imposition; when the bigotry mutates finally into sustained, mechanized genocide, he goes to extraordinary lengths to stay alive, scuttling from one cold, decayed, depopulated locale to another, like the vermin the Nazis keep insisting he is.
While the director crafts some moments of nearly unbearable suspense and dares to see the humor in Szpilman’s plight, there’s nothing cheap, hustling or fashionable about this movie. It’s done in a rigorously classical style that inattentive Polanski fans might mistakenly deem "conventional." They shouldn’t. Polanski is a Polish Jew and longtime U.S. exile whose mother was killed at Auschwitz and whose wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family. The Pianist’s precise, even meticulous approach suggests a deep respect for the brutalizing power of violence that can only have come from personal experience.
As a textbook example of subjective storytelling, it’s peerless. Many major sequences play out at a distance, denying us any information except for that which Szpilman himself could grasp. Brody’s work here confirms his long-suspected potential as a leading man. Every choice he makes is dictated by the reality of his character’s situation. Because Szpilman doesn’t dare reveal his thoughts to others, Brody keeps his emotional cards very close to his vest, forcing us to engage with the movie rather than simply sit back and watch it. In the film’s final third, Brody is required to act almost alone, aided only by props, ambient sounds and eyeline cues; any professional actor will tell you that’s the hardest kind of acting there is. By daring to choose a mostly retiring, defensive protagonist who’s almost mute for much of the film’s running time, Polanski took a great risk, and it paid off.
In comparison, Max seems small, obvious, clunky. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker, and Spielberg collaborator, Menno Meyjes, it jumps off from the notion that if Hitler had been a better painter, there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust. Set in Munich in 1918, Max follows the embittered young Hitler (played with harsh, pathetic, snaggletoothed vigor by Noah Taylor) as he musters out of the army following Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I, then observes his halting attempts to establish himself as a realistic painter in an era more intrigued by surrealism and outright abstraction. Hitler is a thoroughly unpleasant character—a crude, obvious painter and an intellectual snob who batters everyone in earshot with nutcase German mysticism and anti-Jewish invective.
Max (John Cusack, subdued, intelligent and spry), a Jewish painter who lost an arm in the war and became an art dealer, tries to turn Hitler into a real artist. Max repeatedly encourages Hitler to dig deeper into his pain and anger and transform himself into something more than a pretty good representational painter. (He also urges him to get some friends and maybe even get laid.) By the end, Hitler is humiliated by the city’s intellectuals and artists; he gives himself over to the fascist movement and finds his voice as a propagandist, architectural futurist and Fascist visionary—an artist of politics and death.
The script is soaked in historical and artistic detail, and every scene labors to put this melodrama in historic context (the character of Max is a composite). But in the end, one is left wondering if Hitler became a genocidal maniac because a Jewish art dealer burdened him with unreasonable expectations and transformed his helpless resentment into active, powerful rage. To be even more uncharitable, Max could be interpreted as suggesting that Max’s encouragement of Hitler did eventually turn him into an important artist—one who conflated esthetics and politics, creating history’s most fearsome and stylish death machine. The movie’s motto could be, "Be careful what you wish for," or "Be careful what Jews wish for." This scenario could not possibly be intentional, but it’s there all the same. As unintended consequences go, it’s a doozy.