Death and the Maiden (1994)
(Spoilers, sort of)
This scene here is the climax of one of Polanski’s very best films, Death and the Maiden (1994). Let me not elaborate on the plot details and just say that Dr. Miranda (Ben Kingsley) is making a certain confession to Paulina (Sigourney Weaver) about his dark past as her husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), watches on. If the whole of Polanski’s filmography is to be summed up in one line, is must be that key quote from Chinatown (1974) – that man is capable of doing anything given the right circumstances. This monologue where Miranda, himself a variant of John Huston’s character from Chinatown, confesses is, arguably, the most important shot in all of Polanski. Death and the Maiden is not a film dealing with the Holocaust per se, but, as it is with most Polanski films, the parallels are striking (it’s kind of like how The Pianist (2002) wasn’t about the Holocaust at all, even when it dealt with it). The film, and particularly this sequence here, is exactly what Holocaust cinema should all be about. There are no painstakingly recreated details of the war here, no tacked up statements about the triumph of the human spirit and, thankfully, no beautification of the horror (a trap that films as latest as Polytechnique and The City of Life and Death (both 2009) fall into) for the sake of creating art. It’s a film that deals with the impact and significance of a holocaust rather than the mishap itself. And, most importantly, it’s a rare film that truly knows, in Peter Rainer’s words, that “it is the artist’s job to show us that the monster is, in fact, a human being”.
This scene here is filmed as a close up and records Miranda, looking slightly towards the left, recollecting the past in fine detail. The composition is noteworthy here. Polanski could have filmed Kingsley head-on, with him staring into the camera, whereby cinema would intimately and truthfully perform its humble, ethical and mandatory function of acknowledging that “the monster is indeed a human”. But, despite its advantages, if it were done so, the image of Ben Kingsley would overwhelm that of Miranda and break the credibility of the diegetic events, thereby going exactly against the purpose of the shot. The casting of Ben Kingsley here as Miranda is remarkable. He is, I believe, one of those stock stars who wouldn’t be as comfortable when cast in roles much different from one another (Brad Pitt, Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson are few others I can think of now). Kingsley excels in indifference. There is something both pitifully innocent and terrifyingly sinister about his introversive image. His voice is flat, nevertheless brimming with pathos. It is simultaneously befitting of the scene’s intent and appalling to realize that this “Gandhi” turns out to be such a “Hitler” and, more importantly, that this Hitler belongs to the same species as Mohandas Gandhi and Itzhak Stern. (It’s the exact kind of casting decision that von Trier made recently when he bestowed Willem Dafoe with the twin distinction of having played both the Christ and the Antichrist). The result is one of Polanski’s finest and a new direction for Holocaust cinema.