A life less ordinary

Film - Philip Kerr finds that Roman Polanski's Holocaust story doesn't hit a false note

All stories about the Holocaust told from the Jewish perspective share a common fault: they are all remarkable. This is a fault because, for the vast majority of Jews, the experience of the Holocaust was very different. Millions of Jews found only a squalid, anonymous death on Germany's automated mass-destruction line. Movies dealing with the Jewish experience of the Holocaust never deal with these typical stories, only with the anomalies - the survivors. What kind of story is it when the hero dies?

These movies encourage audiences in a rather unfortunate delusion, for we like to imagine - do we not? - just what we would have done in order to survive such an ordeal, when the truth is that survival was almost always improbable, entirely accidental and not a matter of some personal act of eclecticism such as that exercised by Meryl Streep in the 1982 film Sophie's Choice. I always think the best movie to make about the Holocaust would be one in which no one survives at all, because that would be the film that comes closest to reflecting the reality.

The Pianist is a true story about a survivor and hence an anomalous one, but it is possibly one of the best movies ever made about the Holocaust, and certainly the best movie Roman Polanski has made since Chinatown, almost 30 years ago. Indeed, while watching this sometimes unwatchable picture, one has a strong sense that this is the film that Polanski - himself a survivor of the Krakow ghetto - was born to make.

It's the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a gifted Jewish pianist who is forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto with his mother, father, brother and two sisters until their deportation to the Treblinka death camp in 1942 - a fate that Szpilman manages, arbitrarily, to escape. With the help of a few sympathetic Poles, Szpilman takes refuge in a series of safe houses in the city, while the war rages on. From his window, he sees the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and its brutal suppression, and feels the reproach of his fellow Jews that he is not with them. Finally, a tank shooting at Polish resistance fighters forces Szpilman to leave the safe house, and he is soon reduced to searching abandoned buildings for food, and playing dead on the street while the Germans try, in vain, to hold back the Red Army.

It is a remarkable story, handled with an expert lack of sentimentality by Polanski. There is a scene in which an SS officer selects eight Jewish forced labourers for execution and manages to shoot seven before his pistol runs out of ammunition. Spielberg, you feel, could hardly have resisted the temptation to play God and would have had the SS man stamping off, angry at the surviving Jew for having cheated death. But Polanski, always less sparing of his audience, has the SS man produce another magazine for the Luger pistol, which he reloads impatiently. Surely, the gun will jam, you tell yourself. It doesn't. That stuff only ever happens in Hollywood, says Polanski. This film was made in Europe, which suits Polanski's harder-edged sensibility.

But if the movie sets out to tell the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, played to perfection by Adrien Brody, it is Allan Starski who steals the whole picture with his superb production design. Already an Oscar winner for his work on Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), Starski's meticulous re-creation of the Warsaw ghetto - ironically enough, this was done on the back lot at the Babelsberg studios in Berlin, where the man in charge was once Josef Goebbels - is nothing short of miraculous. The scenes of degraded everyday life in the ghetto - the building of the wall around it (are the Israelis oblivious to the irony of building a huge wall surrounding the Neve Dekalim settlement next to Khan Yunis refugee camp?), the cadaverous-looking people, the dead bodies, the ratlike children, the capricious cruelty of the Germans - are such that I am persuaded that this may be the definitive movie about the Holocaust.

The Pianist won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2002. While being without question worth an Oscar, it remains to be seen if, in this current climate of hysteria about paedophilia, Hollywood will feel equal to the task of recognising the work of a man who put himself beyond the pale in 1979, when he fled America while awaiting sentencing on a charge of unlawful intercourse with a minor. Like me, you might think Polanski has suf-fered enough.

The Pianist (15) is out on general release