Since his exile from the United States in the late 1970s, Roman Polanski has made some dreadful clunkers. Pirates, a 1986 comedy-adventure starring Walter Matthau, comes to mind. But the 69-year-old director more than redeems his cinematic reputation with The Pianist, acclaimed by critics around the world and scheduled to open in Vermont this weekend. The stunning new film easily holds its own against his earlier classics, like Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby.
With far less sentimentality than the otherwise brilliant Schindler's List, Polanski's account examines the Holocaust from the perspective of a talented young musician named Wladyslaw Szpilman. This Jewish protagonist -- portrayed by Adrien Brody, perhaps best known for his work in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam -- lives in Warsaw. Unfortunately, it's 1939 and the Nazis are invading Poland.
The Pianist is based on a 1946 memoir by the real-life Szpilman, who died three years ago. British playwright Ronald Harwood's subtle script takes a minimalist approach that is wrenching; an epic scale might have overwhelmed the story of one survivor facing agonizing struggles.
Szpilman, whose performances are broadcast on the radio, is a local celebrity playing Chopin when the bombs start falling. The city's 360,000 Jews are soon forced into a walled ghetto, where the daily routine includes hunger and Gestapo brutality.
When the deportations begin, Szpilman is the only member of his once-upscale family to avoid the cattle cars. He is plucked from the doomed crowd by one of the Jews who collaborate with the Germans to save their own skins. This is the first of several interventions on the musician's behalf. A noted artist, it seems, might also be protected by the Polish resistance.
But nothing is easy for Szpilman as he stays in temporary shelters, with the SS always just a few goosesteps behind. Afraid to make noise, he doesn't dare touch the piano in one such hiding place; instead, his fingers mime the classical composition in his head. Imagined music sustains him -- a good thing, since there is never enough food. The already-thin Brody reportedly shed 30 pounds to convey Szpilman's near-starvation.
Polanski, who was born in Poland, brings depths of understanding to this material. He escaped from a concentration camp at age 7. A second, incomprehensible tragedy took place in 1969, when his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the brainwashed minions of Charles Manson.
As a high flyer in Hollywood a few years later, Polanski had only himself to blame for his troubles: He fled the country after being indicted for having sex with a 13-year-old girl -- coincidentally, at the home of Jack Nicholson, who is now likely to receive an Academy Award nomination for his role in About Schmidt. This might well pit him against Brody. Both men are already in the best-actor category at this Sunday's Golden Globes.
Should The Pianist be up for the Oscar it deserves, it's anybody's guess if Polanski would be allowed to return to California without fear of arrest.
The recent fatal heart attack of Joe Strummer, who helped revolutionize music as a member of The Clash, is a reminder that the youthful punk aesthetic is now on the verge of geriatric decline. Of course, several early British bands self-destructed long before reaching middle age. Those times and those people are chronicled in 24 Hour Party People, screening this Saturday and Sunday in Montpelier as part of the Savoy Theater's World Cinema Series.
The movie zeroes in on the intoxicating atmosphere of "anarchy in the U.K.," which happens to be the title of a Sex Pistols song. That was an era in England, beginning in the late 1970s, when the empire's traditions appeared to crumble.
This particular true tale, directed with dazzling visual energy by Michael Winterbottom, concerns the rise and fall of music entrepreneur Tony Wilson (popular comedian Steve Coogan.) He opens a hot new club, the Hacienda, and starts a record label that launches the short-lived careers of Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays.
Wilson is as colorful a character as any of his neurotic -- in some cases, psychotic -- performers, and he is possessed by the same demons. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are an incendiary combination in swinging Manchester. Yet somehow the film inspires a perverse nostalgia for the decadent party-people of yesteryear.