Sunday, August 9, 2015

Musical Interludes II: The editor's hell. A few notes on Polanski's The Pianist

In my previous entry I discussed musical performance in Letter From An Unknown Woman, Max Ophüls's 1948 classic about a woman's life-long obsession for a mediocre pianist. In particular, I observed how little realistic the scenes with Louis Jourdan at the piano were  a strange thing indeed, at least to a modern sensibility, for a film where musical talent plays so huge a role in the story. Ophüls replaced Jourdan with a hand double whenever possible, but he couldn't avoid exposing the actor's incompetence at the keyboard in a crucial scene.

Let's jump forward half a century to Roman Polanski's ultra famous 2002 drama The Pianist. Set during WWII, it tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist (played by an emaciated Adrien Brody) who escapes deportation to the extermination camp of Treblinka. Polanski, a Holocaust survivor himself, based the film on Szpilman's own book of memoirs, first published in 1946 and later in 1998.

In a 2002 interview at the 55th Cannes Film Festival, where the film won the Palme d'Or, Polanski explained among other things that he didn't want to appear in the film despite its autobiographical nature because he "wanted this film to appear as authentic and realistic as possible". This quest for authenticity is also reflected in Adrien Brody's performance at the piano, which is our main focus here. Brody, who already had a foreknowledge with the instrument, took intensive lessons for months in order to make his keystrokes appear realistic, and the result is amazing  his fingering is always perfectly in sync with the soundtrack. If Ophüls had to choose between lack of realism and heavy editing, Polanski instead was totally free to frame piano scenes as he liked, a freedom allowed by a specific casting choice. This doesn't mean, of course, that the soundtrack was recorded with Brody himself at the piano. In fact, in most scenes contemporary Polish pianist Janusz Olejniczak is actually performing. Clearly, sacrificing authenticity in piano scenes was not an acceptable option for Polanski  at least not in a film like this. But as we will see, a trade-off had to be made anyway.

In what is probably the best remembered scene of the film, Szpilman, who has been hiding in a ruined Warsaw building for days, is discovered by a Nazi officer, Hosenfeld. His intentions are unclear, and of course Szpilman fears for his life. After a laconic conversation during which Szpilman discloses his Jewish origins, he is asked by Hosenfeld to play something on a magnificent, dust-covered grand piano standing in one of the building's rooms. While Szpilman is performing Chopin's first Ballade in G minor, Hosenfeld becomes more and more pensive, uncertain as to whether to fulfill his duties or rather spare the pianist's life. The scene lasts about 5 minutes and constitutes the emotional core of the film: we are inclined to think that Szpilman largely owes his survival to his musical skills, and in particular to this performance in front of the man who could decide on his fate. It's a moment both tense and touching. (I was reminded of Primo Levi, who wouldn't have survived Auschwitz, hadn't it been for his chemistry skills.)

One can easily understand, then, why Polanski demanded extreme realism at this point  you don't want your semi-autobiographical, painstakingly-crafted Holocaust movie screwed up by a Louis Jourdan. Here Brody really delivers an impressive performance: not only he presses all the right keys, but he also uses his whole body to convey the supreme effort of playing a demanding piece under severe physical and psychological conditions. Nonetheless, Chopin connoisseurs will not fail to notice that what Brody is playing is not exactly Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor, which would have lasted approximately ten minutes, but a reworked, much shorter version. A large central section of the original score has been removed, in a way that's almost impossible to notice unless you are familiar with the piece, or you have a good musical ear. In fact, as musicologist Lawrence Kramer observes in his essay "Melodic Trains - Music in Polanski's The Pianist" (from Beyond the Soundtrack. Representing Music in Cinema, University of California Press, 2007), not only the abridged version lacks a large section leading to the agitated coda; said coda does not even begin with its downbeat, which means that there is a measure that is slightly too long. An attentive listener will certainly notice this anomaly, even without having ever heard the ballade before.

Just a few sutures.
Kramer's essays illuminates some aspects of the scene in original ways, persuasively describing how, in his opinion, the abridgment undermines the already fragile structure of the piece. However, it doesn't answer a more basic question I had while watching it: Is the abridgment to Chopin's ballade diegetic or non-diegetic? In other words, was it Polanski who decided to make the scene shorter in the editing room, or are we supposed to believe that Szpilman himself improvised an alternative version for fear of boring his not-to-be-messed-with listener? This makes the difference between an overlong sequence that had to be shortened somehow, and a carefully planned one, possibly with the essential contribution of the film's score composer, Wojciech Kilar, who in this case would have had to rework the piece to make it fit the established duration. This problem wouldn't have occurred if Polanski instead of the Ballade had chosen Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor, a natural choice given that it lasts about five minutes, and that it is exactly the piece the real-life Szpilman played in front of the German officer, as reported in his autobiography. It was probably the exceptional dramatic force of the Ballade that made it a preferable option to the more introverted Nocturne, even if this meant distorting Chopin's work drastically.

While watching the sequence again, I was wondering whether there were any cues that could solve this diegetic/non-diegetic ambiguity. For one thing, I found unlikely that Kilar reassembled the piece with little regard for the tempo. Although persuasive, I wasn't satisfied with this conclusion and turned to the sequence again. This time my attention was caught by something I hadn't noticed before: just before the moment in which the large central section of the Ballade is skipped, there is a cut to the outside of the building, where another Nazi officer standing next to a car is waiting for Hosenfeld to come back. This cut, unmentioned in the script, and unnecessary from a narrative point of view, appears like a filler shot at first glance, but I think its purpose is actually to convey the feeling that some time has passed in between, so that the cut on the soundtrack is justified. If Polanski had instead cut to Hosenfeld at that moment, we wouldn't perceive a leap in time, whereas the change in space signals an ellipsis: non-diegetic cut.

If this supposition is correct, it's likely the scene was intended to last longer, perhaps the whole ten minutes of the Ballade, and that Polanski decided only in a second moment that it was too long. So he must have faced the problem of abbreviating an overlong sequence punctuated by a full-fledged classical composition without destroying its dramatic effect. Polanski's regular editor Hervé de Luze must have worked overtime to get the sequence right. His nomination in the Best Film Editing category at the 2003 Academy Awards seems well deserved. In regard to Polanski's painstaking attention for music and rhythm, de Luze observed in a 2004 interview:
"Roman est très à l’écoute des sons et de la musique et est très concerné par le rythme. Dans les scénarios, il y a généralement peu d’indications concernant le son, sauf dans les scénarios de Roman. Le son a chez lui une vraie fonction dramatique."
Unfortunately (especially for him) there isn't any indication regarding sound or rhythm in that page of the script. Too bad de Luze doesn't explain in detail how he accomplished our Ballade sequence! Where to look at for the solution of the enigma?

Janusz Olejniczak  remember the performer on the film soundtrack?  and his agent Sylwia Zabieglinska helped me out of this quandary. They were kind enough to correspond with me on the subject, and the information they gave me, brief but exhaustive, confirmed my original guess that the cut had not been planned in advance:
[…] Mr. Olejniczak recalls that the Ballade scene was filmed a dozen or so times with the whole Chopin's piece and Roman Polanski cut it while editing.
So there never was any score of the abridged piece as I had initially thought, nor did Mr. Olejniczak ever play a shortened Ballade: the decision was made in post-production. The question remains as to whether Mr. Kilar had a part in it.

The Ballade sequence in The Pianist seems to me a fascinating example of how performed music can shape our experience of a film. I love the fact that although we have determined that the sequence is the result of heavy editing, we can still watch it as if it was Szpilman's choice to rearrange the piece so as not to try the officer's patience. In fact, despite the slight tempo imperfections, the cut is so smooth that we can't conclude once and for all that an ellipsis has occurred exclusively on the basis of what's in the film. This ambiguity also challenges the very notion of realism, that now appears as elusive as ever: if we can't even establish whether the abridgment is part of the story or not, how can we determine how much realistic the scene is? A further confirmation, perhaps, that more problematic than the notion of realism is reality itself.

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