Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #4

Re: The Pianist (2002)

In your review of The Pianist, you wrote, “neither demonizing the Germans nor lionizing the Jews, The Pianist is a work of exquisite restraint.”

Did we see the same film? I watched this film last month, not realizing until late that he was a real person and this was a real story. Until the end, every German was demonized and every Jew (save a scant few) were the “meek”, watching in distress what they saw and heard (and allowed to happen). I came away from the first 4/5ths of this film wondering if God viewed these Jews as perfect persecuted, peaceful lambs or rolling His eyes over their choice to love life but not fight to the death for it. I actually came away with less respect for both the German occupiers (if that’s possible) but also less for the Jews.

I don’t know for what reason this film is good for you, but I cannot believe that you would endorse the portrayal (notwithstanding that it’s a true one) of people who get treated as anti-humans because they didn’t fight back when they were merely treated dis-respectfully. How you take a punch often determines whether the bully becomes curious as to how you bleed.

God doesn’t endorse this, I truly believe, as in, God helps those who help themselves. “Help”, not to be confused with “Survive”. God doesn’t want us to merely survive. He needs us to show we can fight and die for the sake of life and humanity, and this film is saturated with people who are survivalists, waiting until someone else dies to save them. True story or not, it’s the wrong lesson. And I could picture God washing His hands of the entire lot of every person, German and Jew in Warsaw in 1939.

PS: Enjoying some of your other reviews. Note: In Man On Fire, he sacrifices himself for someone else. I don’t know what this earns him in the hereafter, but I’d take him over anyone in Pianist.

There is nothing that more swiftly and reliably secures my distrust for a film (at least in the case of a morally serious drama, not necessarily a stylized adventure or work of mythopoeia) than when all the characters of a particular sort are painted with a uniformly black (or white) brush. As I’ve often pointed out, even among Nazis you don’t find that level of uniformly evil behavior, and any morally serious depiction of Nazis will account for that fact in one way or another.

That said, given any degree or sort of nuance, I give filmmakers a lot of latitude in how they apply it, so long as it’s there. As soon as criticism must be hedged with qualifying phrases like “until the end every German was demonized” and “every Jew save a scant few were the meek,” I very quickly lean in favor of the filmmaker’s liberty to tell the story he wants. Because you know what? Nazis were seriously evil, and Jews suffered beyond description.

As I have often noted, my chief complaint with The Magdalene Sisters was that not only was every nun and every priest was an abuser or complicit in abuse, none of them was ever anything, morally speaking, other than evil. Had Mullan given us even one ecclesiastical figure as positive as the German officer in The Pianist, and bracketed the innocent victimhood of even a “scant few” girls in the asylum as Polanski did the Jewish collaborators, I would have been able to recommend the film instead of disparaging it. And that’s a film about nuns — not Nazis.

Your comments about the suffering Jews not fighting back, “how you take a punch,” and “God washing His hands of the entire lot of every person, German and Jew in Warsaw,” etc., leave me as speechless as anything I have ever heard or read. To say that I am not a person who is easily rendered speechless is something of an understatement, so that’s a good trick.

You say “God doesn’t endorse this.” Damn straight: “God helps those who help themselves” is a human bromide, not something God ever said. Speaking of God’s word, never mind the New Testament, have you ever read the Old? I don’t remember God telling Moses that the Hebrews were wusses who deserved to be enslaved for not fighting back against those bullying Egyptians. And the prophets did a lot of railing against powerful oppressors of the weak, but hardly any — no, I can’t sacrifice the point to ironic understatement — none at all against the weak for allowing themselves to be oppressed.

Your ethic about impressing bullies by taking a punch and hitting back has more to do with Hollywood fantasy than moral reality. As for Man On Fire, I’m not surprised to find anyone snookered by that film’s moral bankruptcy disguised as self-sacrifice, but in this case it seems bizarrely appropriate.

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