I saw this back when it came out, knowing not much about Polanski. Now I was able to watch it as a Roman Polanski film. Or not, more like: because of the subject matter, it resists being seen as an exercise in directorial style. Both because Polanski was, he says, trying to rein it in, understandably, and because, you know, you feel kind of inhuman trying to think about technique while watching a movie about the Holocaust. So, mostly I didn't: I just watched.
I don't remember what I thought about it in 2002. Now I find my views on it match up pretty closely with Ebert's. The passivity and stillness of the second half are effective in conveying the sense that this man survives because of chance and the humanity of a very few strangers. Not (despite what the interviews on the disc claim) because of any inner strength, or the power of music.
I found it curious to watch the interviews on the disc and learn how many of the incidents in the first part of the movie, the scenes set in the Warsaw Ghetto, were drawn from Polanski's own life. I mean, I knew he was a Holocaust survivor, but watching the film, I actually felt like the ghetto scenes were just the tiniest bit conventional. Infuriating and horrifying too, of course, but perhaps not too different from what one would expect to find in any Holocaust movie.
But the second half: that felt like a Roman Polanski movie. I mean, this is an Apartment Movie, right? The most powerful scenes involve Szpilman in interiors, little spaces where he's locked away from the world, usually alone. The film is about being alone in a city that's turning ever more hostile: alone because there's nobody in the apartment with you, and alone because almost everybody who could potentially come into the apartment with you wants to kill you.
I don't mean to reduce it to urban angst and ennui: that's not it. It's more that I think Polanski's using familiar urban angst and ennui to accentuate the very unfamiliar terrors that Szpilman is enduring. He's hiding: he has to be still, silent, and unseen. It's an enforced passivity. All he can do is peek out the window and watch a world quickly disintegrating; all he can do is privately try to keep from disintegrating, while moving around like a ghost in his genteel interiors.
The movie is about the way what we can see becomes our whole world, and the way sudden changes of scenery can shock us with the realization that there are other worlds out there. The moment when Szpilman, on a work detail, steps out of the ghetto into the peaceful, green, bountiful gentile streets is a shock: how can such normalcy exist side-by-side with such horror? Abruptly we realize that Szpilman has probably been assuming that the rest of occupied Warsaw is a hellhole too; and we realize that the gentile Poles have been refusing to imagine what really goes on behind the walls of the ghetto. There's a similar shock at the end when Szpilman, fleeing the German flamethrowers, climbs over the hospital wall into the bombed-out ruins of the city. Up until then he - and we - haven't suspected the true extent of the destruction. We assume that, just like the block we've been looking at for the last half hour, the city has survived: broken and bloody, but still there. Now we realize, along with him, that it's gone.