Film fanatics and friends Fred Sullivan and Yasser Akram are on a mission to watch 25 of one another’s favourite movies. Each week they will watch one movie each and then get together to discuss what they have seen. 80 years of film making is covered in the choices, from the last, inaudible breath of the silent era through to the age of billion-dollar budgets and CGI.
This week, Yasser’s choice is a film that focuses on one of the key human tragedies of the 20th Century, the Holocaust. WARNING: Some of the links in this blog are to material that some people may find upsetting.
You can read the entires from previous week by checking out the archives on the left of the screen.
Fred: I can’t remember what we are starting with this week. Jews or Mexicans?
FS: Yes, or ‘Schindler’s Liszt‘ (laughs)
YA: You must be a terrorist because that joke just bombed.
FS: (laughs) One for the classical pianists. Where do we begin with this movie? Why do you like it and why did it make your list?
YA: What you’ll find is my list is majoritively films I connect to on an emotional level.
FS: This is certainly an emotional subject for a film.
YA: You remember ‘War Horse‘ when you were a heartless bastard and I felt for Joey? Yeah, like that (laughs)
FS: ‘The Pianist’ is a different kettle of fish, though, as it’s human suffering, not equine.
YA: Szpilman’s (Adrien Brody) story isn’t a story of a hero, even a fighter. It is his account of things and his survival story.
FS: Yes. It’s actually quite uneventful.
YA: It isn’t a fast-paced story but it definitely pulls you in.
FS: Well, it is fast-paced as it covers the whole of World War II in 140 minutes but in a way it kind of falls between two stools because of that.
FS: Exactly. You don’t really get a sense of the boredom and isolation he must be experiencing and, even worse, there were large parts where I didn’t even feel that he was in danger.
YA: You’re confusing me. Explain.
FS: In the second half, when he’s holed up in the flats, I didn’t feel that he was living in fear.
YA: No. They were safe houses.
FS: He was just sitting out the war which, whilst historically accurate, isn’t very interesting to watch.
YA: I think the scenes where he’s sitting it out show his isolation and how much he’s truly lost in terms of family, friends, health and wealth.
FS: But it jumped forward in time so much that it kind of didn’t feel that bad. I know that sounds ridiculous.
YA: But he hardly eats. You got to feel for him because you could see the weight-loss in his face and frame.
FS: Brody looked skinny at the beginning. He didn’t look any skinnier at the end, just hairier.
YA: His clothes were baggier, his face was thinner.
FS: He just looked like a man wearing big clothes.
YA: (laughs) There’s no pleasing you.
FS: The first half was excellent. The building of the ghetto, the resettling of everyone, and life therein was really well done. They got across what an awful place it was to live. I thought it was good that details such as the Jewish police weren’t shied away from. Polanski just told the story – he didn’t make it political. As you said, Szpilman wasn’t a fighter and they didn’t make him out to be.
YA: Were there any parts of the film where his family is involved before the ghetto sequence that spoke to you?
FS: It was an honest portrayal. The hope that quickly turns to a realisation that things are going to get much, much worse. There is the scene where the Szpilman’s father (Frank Finlay) and two other men are talking about what happens in the camps and then people begin to realise what awaits them.
YA: I thought their last meal together was rather sad too – a small caramel that they share.
FS: Well, she played a stereotypical Jewish mother and unfortunately she used the same accent in ‘The Pianist’ so I couldn’t get that out of my head.
FS: He was very good, though he didn’t quite nail the performance as I’d expected.
YA: What did he not bring that you wanted him to?
FS: The film lost my interest the more he was expected to carry it. In that second half he seemed desperate and hungry, but never really upset or afraid.
YA: I wanted you to love this film, but also hate it.
FS: Why ‘hate it’?
YA: There are some graphic things that go on in the picture that are quite inhumane. There was one scene with the man in the wheelchair… yeah…
FS: That was the most shocking moment in the film. I find Holocaust movies have a very difficult line to tread between emotional manipulation and treating the subject in a trivial or sanitised way.
YA: I think this movie pulls it off well. It showed Jews policing Jews, beating them up, brown-nosing the Nazis…
FS: I agree it’s done well. I didn’t feel guilty, but nor did I feel the anger I do when film makers don’t have the bravery to show what really happened.
FS: That’s true, but I didn’t feel the film brought anything new to me. It confirmed what I know and have learned from a lifetime of reading books, and watching documentaries and films about the Holocaust.
YA: What did you make of the German officer, played by Thomas Kretschmann?
FS: Everyone likes a sympathetic Nazi, don’t they? I’m not sure he had enough time to make an impact really. I didn’t feel sorry for him, he just seemed to be sick of the war. It’s difficult to criticise characters based on real people.
YA: This film won Oscars for Best Director and Best Actor. Do you think they were deserved?
FS: I think Polanski’s was a political one. It might have been the only chance they had to give it to him. People often win Oscars due to what they have achieved in their whole career. That said, not may directors could walk the tightrope of emotion and factual accuracy with such skill.
YA: Brody deserved his, I feel.
FS: It wasn’t a great year, but he beat four Oscar winners – no mean feat.
YA: I think it should have beaten ‘Chicago‘ to Best Picture, but then I haven’t seen it. I’m not into those kinds of musicals.
FS: Awwwww Yasser! Bob Fosse – fucking legendary choreographer.
YA: (laughs) Okay! If it’s not Fred and Ginger it’s not worth watching
YA: Was there anything else that annoyed you, apart from the mother?
FS: Nothing annoyed me. It handled the subject sensitively, but I’m not really sure what it was trying to say, though. It was one survivor’s story but his story was less interesting than others I’ve read, apart from the fact he never actually went to camp.
YA: How do you think it compared to other movies on the same subject?
FS: It would be up there with one of the better ones. I think they could have dwelt on his isolation more in the second half. It’s one of those rare movies that could have benefited from being longer.
YA: Perhaps they were worried about the running time, as it’s already long. I think you wanted to see him go apeshit, or start talking to himself or summat.
FS: No. I just wanted to feel his frustration more. It’s odd. The Holocaust is a subject that I’m very interested in and it normally makes me very emotional, but this movie didn’t really do that. It’s even-handedness and it’s distance from the horror of the camps were the movie’s unique selling point, but also lessened the impact.
YA: This is the first time I’ve not been sure how you are going to rate one of my movies.
FS: It’s a very good movie with a decent cast, though few of them stand out. The recreation of Warsaw and the ghetto is impeccable. If you already know about the Holocaust then I don’t think you are going to learn anything new, but that doesn’t make the story less harrowing despite the film’s curious lack of emotional power.
FS: In the hands of a less skilled director it could have felt trivial and clichéd, but Polanski is an excellent director and his first-hand experience of living through the Holocaust helped. Lots of movies on the Holocaust are poor, due to either sanitisation or overt politicism. This film does neither and so I’m giving it 7/10.
YA: If the latter parts had been more interesting, would it’ve got more?
FS: Based on the first half, up to when Sziplman’s family is boarded on to a train, it was looking like a nine.
Look out for part two later this week.