Director : Roman Polanski
Screenplay : Ronald Harwood (based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Adrien Brody (Wladyslaw Szpilman), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Wilm Hosenfeld), Frank Finlay (The Father), Maureen Lipman (The Mother), Emilia Fox (Dorota), Ed Stoppard (Henryk), Julia Rayner (Regina), Jessica Kate Meyer (Halina), Ruth Platt (Janina), Michal Zebrowski (Jurek), Richard Ridings (Mr. Lipa)
Roman Polanski survived the Holocaust when he was seven years old because his father cut a hole for him a barbed wire fence. He lived with various families over the years while his father spent four years in a concentration camp and his mother died in the gas chamber. Although he has insisted in interview after interview that his Palme d'Or-winning film The Pianist, about a young Jewish musician who survives the Holocaust through a combination of willful endurance and sheer luck, is not autobiographical, it is hard to escape the connections to his own life.
It has been more than 60 years since the Polish-born Polanski slipped through that barbed wire fence, but watching The Pianist, you can sense immediately that the experience is something that has never left him. It informs every frame of the film, from the most sorrowful moments, to the most horrifying, to the most inspiring. There are millions of stories to tell about the Holocaust--about those who lived, about those who died, about those who conspired, and about those who fought against it--but Polanski, not surprisingly, has picked one of the most intimate. In many ways, you can say that The Pianist is not about the Holocaust itself, but about how one man survived it.
That man was Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a classical pianist with a passion for his music (in the film's startling opening sequence, when the German bombs first start falling in Warsaw while he is playing Chopin for a radio station, he refuses to move, even as the windows are blasted out). Szpilman continually insistes that the worst will not happen, but life for him and his family is slowly taken apart by the invading Nazis, as they are first stripped of their possessions, then herded off to a Jewish ghetto, then finally loaded onto boxcars to be shipped to a certain death in a concentration camp.
Yet, Szpilman survives where others do not. Why? At first, it is simply luck. While being loaded onto the boxcars, a friend of his who has joined the collaborationist Jewish police force pulls him aside at the last minute, effectively sparing his life while his family is taken. After that, he is taken in by various members of the Polish underground, mostly wealthy Gentiles who move him from apartment to apartment in the city where he stays completely alone and unable to make a sound. In one terribly ironic situation, he is placed in an apartment with a piano that he cannot play for fear of drawing attention to his presence. So, he sits at the keyboard and plays the air inches above the keys, lost in the music of his head.
For long stretches, The Pianist is nearly wordless, as Szpilman sits alone, watching the war rage outside his window. It is in these moments that the film is at its most transcendent, as it fully immerses us in Szpilman's experience and reminds us that silence can be just as terrible as explosions. Here the film is much like Polanski's first masterpiece, Repulsion (1965), in that it derives great power through limited perspective. Through years of hiding, Szpilman slowly wastes away (in real life, Brody lost some 20 pounds to better reflect his character's deteriorating physical condition); while his body grows thin, his hair and beard grow long and his eyes grow wild. Polanski shows us with barely a word of dialogue what survival entails. While it might be celebrated in the end, survival itself can be a horrible, nearly dehumanizing event.
Some have written that The Pianist does not feel like a Roman Polanski film because it lacks the visual inventiveness and verve of his most celebrated works, including Rosemary's Baby (1968), Macbeth (1971), and Chinatown (1974). Yet, it is certainly his best work in decades for that very reason. The visual approach Polanski chose, which is more often than not a steady, unwavering camera, conveys the power of his subject matter in ways that are deeply affecting--it works for the film and doesn't draw attention to the artist. When The Pianist turns violent (which it does in ways that are both suddenly unexpected and terribly inexorable), the camera doesn't move in for a close-up or cut away discreetly, but rather remains in a horrified stare, forcing us to watch the inevitable. It suggests the mesmerizing, stomach-churning power of real-life horror, and it never, ever becomes desensitizing.
The final third of The Pianist finds Szpilman hiding in a bombed-out apartment building in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. There, at the very end of the war, he develops a strange relationship with a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann) that might be written off as sentimental if it weren't based on truth. It is, nonetheless, a reminder of the humanity of everyone involved in the Holocaust, even those who willingly gave theirs away. The Pianist is a powerful, deeply moving film that encapsulates one man's experience as a way of speaking to the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. That we can never be entirely sure of just how much of Polanski's own experience is wrapped up in Szpilman's makes it all the more stirring.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick