“If they cut off my head, what do I say? Me and my head, or me and my body?” muses the hero of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, at the point where his intrusive neighbors have so whittled away his peace of mind and integrity of body that he might be about to disappear up just such a conundrum.
A lot of whittling goes on as well in The Pianist, on a much grander scale. The city of Warsaw, occupied by the Nazis in 1939, is broken down into an Aryan section and a Jewish quarter, which in turn is divided into a large and small ghetto. The latter is then dissolved and, in mid-1942, elimination of all the inhabitants of the ghetto begins with “resettlement” in the east, meaning to the death camp of Treblinka. The family of concert pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) undergoes simultaneous shrinkage: from their own home to two rooms in the ghetto, then a resettlement barracks, before they are crammed onto a train for the camp. Except for Wladyslaw: he becomes a unit of one, bundled from hiding hole to hiding hole as the city of Warsaw is whittled down around him.
You can read the complete version of this article in the May/June 2003 print edition of Film Comment.