Tag Archives: Rosemary’s Baby

Horror and Roman Polanski’s Holocaust

Just before I left the Philadelphia area, Ashley and I sat down to a romantic evening watching a Holocaust drama – namely, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). Adrien Brody, who deservingly won an Oscar for his performance, is Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (duh) living in Warsaw during World War II. Brody is the film’s core, yet he’s never histrionic or larger than life; as a matter of fact, he’s smaller than life, as he grows more and more emaciated and is forced into tiny, claustrophobic spaces. It’s a very understated film that replaces the expected emotional outpours (see Schindler’s List) with muted reactions and muffled sobs.

Whereas Spielberg’s List almost becomes giddy with the process of duping the Nazis (sort of like a prestige version of Indiana Jones), Szpilman is always receding and taking anything he can get. There’s no room for huge gestures when a sip of water is a miracle. For long portions of the film, Brody barely says anything while his friends and family argue about possible courses of action. After he escapes the ghetto and is smuggled into a series of apartments, he becomes purely a survivalist, ultimately risking his life for a can of pickles. Szpilman’s story combines luck with animalistic perseverance because, as the film suggests, those two traits are necessary to survive.

If you’re like me, your ears pricked up when I said the word “apartment” back there, for it’s no coincidence that Polanski also directed the “Apartment Trilogy” of horror films (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant). The Pianist is, perhaps surprisingly, very much of a piece with this earlier work – only this time around, Polanski’s paranoid, fidgety style is applied to real-life horrors experienced by the director himself, albeit in Krakow.

It’s useful, I think, to look at The Pianist as an autobiographical/historical companion to Polanki’s fiction-based films. It shares its basic characteristics with much of his filmography: a frightened individual must escape from an overarching conspiracy that s/he is powerless to stop and incapable of fully understanding. Rosemary crumbles physically and emotionally in the satanists’ hands; Jake is rendered speechless by Noah Cross’s unfathomable, wide-reaching evil; Trelkovsky is warped by the posthumous pull of Simone Choule’s habits; and Szpilman is reduced to a shadow of a man by the unyielding grip of the SS.

All of these fights are intrinsically unfair because the characters’ opponents are conspiratorial and nebulous. Szpilman and the others are just human beings, ordinary and alone, being oppressed by indestructible systems. This comparison clarifies Polanski’s view of the Nazis: they’re agents of horror with the scales tilted violently in their favor, able to gaze down with ease on Szpilman even as he tries to escape their field of vision. Imbalances in vision, and therefore knowledge, are vital to the conflict in Polanski’s films. Just think of Jake Gittes’s investigation in the first act of Chinatown as he peeks through spyglasses and cameras, not realizing that he’s being set up.

Szpilman is similarly myopic, but unlike Jake, it’s not because he’s too headstrong to see; instead, it’s because he’s an individual and hence unable to perceive the historic arc of the war surrounding him. All he can do is listen for immediate developments; the Nazis have too tight a lid on their future plans. (In one horrifying scene, a woman asks a Nazi officer, “Where are you taking us?” and he promptly shoots her.) The visual equivalent to this myopia is the keyhole shot.

The keyhole shot, in which an object is viewed through a narrowed scope akin to a silent film iris, is one of Polanski’s stylistic trademarks. It was the entire substance of his early film Toothy Smile and was most famously used to look at Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. In the shot pictured above – and, later on, through a crack in a hospital window – Szpilman struggles for a glimpse of the hostile outside world. Like Polanski’s other apartment-bound protagonists, he wants to keep up a protective barrier while still sizing up external threats. For Carole in Repulsion, that threat was a single young man; for Szpilman, it’s the carnage that engulfs Warsaw in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising.

It’s not just Szpilman’s relationship with his volatile wartime world that reminded me of the Apartment Trilogy. It’s also the way the denizens of that world are represented. The Nazis and their Polish allies take their position of authority over the Jews seriously to an absurd and irrational degree. One Nazi insists that Szpilman’s father walk in the gutter, a ridiculous request that suggests the ridiculousness of its historical context, and a landlady who demands Szpilman’s papers greatly resembles Shelley Winters’ bitchy concierge in The Tenant. The Jews in the ghetto, meanwhile, adapt to their grotesque situation in different ways – some by lashing out, some by grifting their neighbors, and some by turning inward like Szpilman.

Polanski’s presentation of the ghetto, in scenes like the one pictured above, is sometimes tinged with the very blackest of humor. These little ironies aren’t “ha ha” funny; they emphasize the utter, incomprehensible injustice of it all. Another example is when Szpilman is discovered by the Russians as they march into Poland, but is shot at because he’s wearing a Nazi officer’s coat. The Russians corner him, conclude that he’s Polish, and ask, “Then why the fucking coat?” Szpilman’s response almost sounds like a bleak punchline: “I’m cold.” His suffering is so obvious that pointing it out verges on comedy.

The Pianist is a film about the kafkaesque side of the Holocaust: about how it slowly descended on an unsuspecting family who didn’t realize its enormity until it was too late. Structurally, it’s very much like one of Polanski’s psychological horror movies or conspiracy thrillers, but greatly magnified, as the villains here have created an efficient killing machine that encompasses an entire continent. Szpilman could never stop the Nazi onslaught, but the film does hold out one saving grace. Despite the loss of his family and community, he does live to play the piano again. In Polanski’s world, which was partially shaped by firsthand experiences with the Holocaust, that’s the best you can hope for.

As a final treat, I noticed a few images that very clearly echoed Polanski’s other films. It can’t be coincidence that Szpilman is given a potato that has begun to sprout, identical to the symbolic tuber from Repulsion:

And it’s not surprising that the order-into-chaos image of papers scattering in the air would appeal to Polanski. Here’s a shot that appears to anticipate the ending of The Ghost Writer by nearly a decade:

3 Comments

Filed under Cinema

Billy Loves Stu and the Meme of Horror!

We here at Pussy Goes Grrr love community-building. We also love telling our reading audience about our selves and our opinions. And Pax Romano over at the delightfully queer horror blog Billy Loves Stu has provided an outlet for doing just that: it’s The First Ever Billy Loves Stu Meme for Horror Bloggers. (Even though we’re not a horror blog per se, this whole place is infused with the spirit of horror. So STFU.) So, without further ado, here’s our response (us being Ashley & Andreas) to this getting-to-know-you FAQ/survey/meme…

1: In Ten Words or Less, Describe Your Blog:

Angry feminism meets culture-analyzing acumen and horror movie love.

2: During What Cinematic Era Where you Born?
A: The Classic Horror Era (late 30’s to 40’s)
B: The Atomic Monster/Nuclear Angst Era (the late 40’s through 50’s)
C: The Psycho Era ( Early 60’s)
D: The Rosemary’s Baby Era (Mid to Late 60’s)
E: The Exorcism Era (Early to mid 70’s)
F: The Halloween Era (Late 70’s to Early 80’s)
G: The Slasher Era (Mid to late 80’s) (Ashley)
H: The Self Referential/Post Modern Era (1990 to 1999) (Andreas)

[We both have some issues with these chronological breakdowns, however, primarily in the later years: e.g., wouldn’t the “Halloween Era” just be the part of the “Slasher Era”?]

3: The Carrie Compatibility Question:
(gay men and straight women – make your choice from section A)
A: Billy Nolan or Tommy Ross, who would you take to the prom?
(straight guys and lesbians – make your choice from section B)
B: Sue Snell or Chris Hargensen, who would you take to the prom?

Same answer for both us: Sissy Spacek and only Sissy Spacek.

4: You have been given an ungodly amount of money, and total control of a major motion picture studio – what would your dream Horror project be?

Andreas: If  that “ungodly amount of money” can be used to fund the resurrection of the dead, I say we zombify the corpse of F.W. Murnau, give him whatever money’s left over, and watch him go. That’s my dream horror project.

Ashley: Due to massive amounts of genetic tampering in local chickens, one chicken mutates into the dreaded CHICKENCLIT! It’s a clit! It’s a chicken! It’s 50 STORIES TALL! This movie would be a beautiful abomination and would tank miserably before going on to become a cult classic 20 years later.

5: What horror film “franchise” that others have embraced, left you cold?

Andreas: I’m not really a “franchise” sort of guy – I’m pretty insistent on quality over quantity, and rarely find myself watching sequels beyond “II.” By way of example, I didn’t much care for Friday the 13th Part I, and am in no hurry to see anything past that.

Ashley: All of Scream and all of Friday the 13th. FUCK THOSE MOVIES.

6:  Is Michael Bay the Antichrist?

Michael Bay sucks. Damien is the Antichrist.

7: Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Frankenstein Monster – which one of these classic villains scares you, and why?

Andreas: They’re all scary, each in their own special way. But whereas the Monster is more pitiful and Dracula’s more aristocratic, the Wolf Man can tear your fucking throat out and wake up the next morning, as if from a drunken binge, with no memory of the event. Poor, poor Larry Talbot.

Ashley: Lord Summerisle, fersure. He may not be classic, but he’s retro! Also, Billy. He will fuck your Christmas all up.


8: Tell me about a scene from a NON HORROR Film that scares the crap out of you:

Ashley: The rape scenes in Rashomon (1950) and The Virgin Spring (1960). The brutality experienced by the female characters in both films is very scary. On a lighter note, Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) is one scary motherfucker, and not just when he turns into the murderous, demon-eyed toon.

9: Baby Jane Hudson invites you over to her house for lunch.  What do you bring?

As long as she’s got enough dead rats and pet birds for both of us, there’s no reason to turn this into a potluck.

10: So, between you and me, do you have any ulterior motives for blogging?  Come, on you can tell me, it will be our little secret, I won’t tell a soul.

Andreas: I’ve never told anyone this before, but… I have an earnest desire to share my thoughts about film with the world, and to read the opinions of others. Now shhhh! We can’t let this get out.

11: What would you have brought to Rosemary Woodhouse’s baby shower?

Do they sell infant contact lenses?

12: Godzilla vs The Cloverfield Monster, who wins?

Neither of us have seen Cloverfield, but I’m just going to take a guess and say that Godzilla wins. Because you know what? Godzilla wins pretty much everything, from Godzilla vs. Megalon to the Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Plus, he’s got half a century of experience.

13: If you found out that Rob Zombie was reading your blog, what would you post in hopes that he read it?

Ashley: Rob Zombie, if he just happened to be a long-time reader, would already be pissed off about me calling him an asshole for remaking films that don’t need to be remade here.

14: What is your favorite NON HORROR FILM, and why?

Andreas: Favorite, schmavorite; I can never narrow my preferences down to absolutes. But, uh, I’m very fond of The Third Man, Johnny Guitar, and anything by Fassbinder.

Ashley: A lot of my all-time favorite films ARE horror films e.g. Repulsion and Let the Right One In. These movies hold their own next to any other movie of any other genre. But if I had to choose some favorite non-horror, I love Miyazaki’s films (and even some of them have slight touches of creepiness) and lots of other animated films (like the aforementioned Roger Rabbit). Double Indemnity is one of my favorite films and so is Gaslight (which also has touches of horror) and I love, love, love Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

15: If blogging technology did not exist, what would you be doing

Andreas: Pursuing my college education without distraction. Jesus, how boring would that be?

Ashley: Since I don’t spend ALL of my time blogging, I’d probably just spend (even more) time perusing the interwebz.

I hope you enjoyed this intimate look into our creepy little minds. Thanks to Billy Loves Stu for the meme; go check it out!

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema, Meta