The Pianist

December, 2002, Drama

Directed by:Roman Polanski

Starring:Adrien Brody and cinematography

Can one honestly review this film?  Surviving its bleak, honest, altogether excruciating impact leaves little room for detached, intellectualized reaction. Polish-born director Roman Polanski, (Chinatown) as famous for his tragic personal life as for his work in the movies, has brought to the screen the story of a fellow Polish Jew struggling for survival in Warsaw during the Second World War . It's a painfully beautiful work, featuring a mesmerizing performance by the young American character actor Adrian Brody and it marks the 70 year-old filmmaker's return to the peak of those storytelling powers he demonstrated so surely in his early movies like Knife in the Water and Repulsion.

After the death of his actress-wife Sharon Tate at the hands of Charles Manson's cult and his flight to Europe to avoid prosecution for having had sex with a minor, Polanski's movies in the 80's and 90's ranged from the overwrought Harrison Ford thriller Frantic to an adaptation of the Broadway play Death and the Maiden, which focused on the roles of torture victim and tormentor in an un-named South American country. The director's choice of subjects and his treatment of them are best described in his own words: "I know in my heart of hearts that the spirit of laughter has deserted me". No more apt description could apply to the directorial spirit that animates The Pianist's elegant and tragic story of survival.

Wladyslaw Szpilman was already a famous name in Poland in the early fall of 1939; his piano recitals were presented regularly on Polish radio, and his reputation supported the comfortable life he led in Warsaw with the other members of his family. Hitler's invasion in September of that year brought the artist's cocooned existence to an abrupt halt; restrictions on the movements of Poland's Jewish community, limitations on their financial resources, the humiliation of arm-band identification in public followed by physical isolation in the Warsaw ghetto, and finally deportation to the concentration camps foreshadowing the massacre of the ghetto's remaining holdouts. Over 5 years of unimaginable, almost indescribable living hell; that Szpilman survived it, then wrote about his experiences is reason enough for this wrenchingly uncomfortable story to be cinematically brought to life.

It is Polanski's genius that his filmed biography of this artist's survival also becomes an anguished examination of precisely how the lives of so many of his fellow countrymen were so swiftly and brutally thrown into the cauldron of Nazi butchery. Szpilman's descent into a hellish existence plays out against the larger context of Warsaw's entire Jewish community, tellingly if savagely caught in a series of Polanski’s random but acute observations which unflinchingly underscore the degradation meted out during the Nazi occupation.

Historical films are very tricky; to be entertaining, they have to focus on the lives of a few principal characters that must play out their roles against the backdrop of larger events which lie behind the era in which the storyline occurs. (Fred Zimmerman did this brilliantly in Lawrence of Arabia; Spielberg was partially successful in Schlindler's List, but Michael Bay's laughable Pearl Harbor demonstrates just how awful the results can be, even when accompanied with a gigantic budget.)  In the recently released Gangs Of New York, director Martin Scorsese tried to present a sweeping view of what life must have been like in the violent, crime-infested slums of New York City during the middle decades of the 19th century. He failed because his overheated plot, involving rival gang leaders, simply swallowed up his presentation of those aspects of daily urban life he obviously wanted to present. In The Pianist, by contrast, Adrian Brody's charming and cultured Szpilman becomes a Jewish Everyman, allowing the audience to experience, what he does as it follows his desperate efforts to survive the humiliation, degradation and randomly soulless violence he his fellow Jews suffered before the final obscenity of their extermination. We've heard and read and seen aspects of this nightmare before--but Brody's sensitive, understated performance forces the audience to experience them all over again. Brody’s quiet but commanding presence in such movies as The Thin Red Line and Summer of Sam marked him as an impressive, (if infrequently seen) young actor of considerable skill; his Spzilman represents one of the best male performances of the year, and helped the movie win top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Those who thought Schindler's List would forever be the definitive movie exploration of the Holocaust were wrong-- without detracting from the undeniable power of that film, Pianist revisits this subject with a cinematic delicacy that makes its inevitable violence all the more repulsive despite the directorial restraint Polanski demonstrates.

Brody's Szpilman isn't heroic; he's something more enigmatic, an improbable survivor. He doesn't react with paralyzing horror at the body of a small child lying on the sidewalk; he steps around it, remaining focused on the living, not the dead.  Saved by the intercession of a Jewish guard from the concentration camp transfer that dooms his parents and siblings, Szpilman relies on an ex-soldier to arrange work as brick carrier on a Nazi-directed construction job outside the ghetto. When confronted with the senseless killing of a co-worker, we don't see tears form in Szpilman's eyes, just a runny nose. When he realizes his physical strength won't tolerate further abuse at the hands of his German guards, he seeks the assistance of non-Jewish friends to arrange his escape from the ghetto, then gratefully accepts their offer of a place to hide--incongruously enough, in an apartment just outside the ghetto's walls and directly across from a German hospital and police station. Szpilman fully understands that his reliance on these friends poses risks for them he'll be unable to adequately repay. 

As the war drags on, Szpilman observes the ghetto's uprising, its destruction, the slaughter of Polish resistance fighters and finally the devastation brought on by the advancing Russians. His health badly deteriorated, Szpilman moves from his drab hideout to the now abandoned hospital across the street, foraging for food in the squalid debris left by the war. Confined at last to the attic of an old mansion, he's befriended in a bizarre turn of events by a German officer who plays a crucial role in the artist's survival until rescue finally arrives in the person of Russian troops who nearly kill him for wearing a German officer's winter coat.

At two and a half hours of running time, The Pianist is a bit too long; its first two-thirds, tracing the disintegration of Warsaw's Jewish community and Szpilman's scrambling efforts to slip under the radar of German detection, are more interesting and powerful than the last third, which concentrates almost exclusively on Szpilman's daily routine of fighting the boredom of isolation, scavenging for food and avoiding capture. And his confrontation with the German officer that forms the film's extended climax smacks of a theatricality Polanski's sober direction up to that point otherwise avoids. But these are minor imperfections in a film of heart-rending impact; with Polanski's pitch-perfect touch and Brody's accessible and utterly sympathetic Szpilman, The Pianist demands to be seen-and praised-as a remarkable chronicle of human endurance. This isn't an easy film to watch, but its compelling story demands to be seen.     



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