Pianist, The (UK/France/Germany/Poland/Netherlands, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

To lump The Pianist in with all of the other Holocaust stories brought to the screen does a great disservice to this powerful, compelling motion picture. Crafted without a whiff of melodrama, this motion picture takes a steady, unflinching look at the plight of Jews in Warsaw during the years when Poland was occupied by the Nazis. For director Roman Polanski, this represents his most effective film in nearly three decades. Not since 1974's Chinatown has Polanski reached such dramatic heights.

How is The Pianist different from an "average" Holocaust drama (if there can be said to be such a thing)? To begin with, there are no concentration camp scenes. Instead of taking us into the depths of Auschwitz, the film leaves us on the streets of Warsaw, where life and death was as uncertain a prospect as it was in the camps. In addition, Polanski does not flinch from showing the naked horrors perpetrated by Nazis on Jews. There is no attempt to sugar-coat this bitter pill – we see frequent gunshots to the head, torture, and the effects of starvation. The tone and style of the film are documentary-like - Polanski observes from a detached perspective, detailing atrocities without manipulating his audience. The result is bleak and powerful, and may overcome more sensitive viewers. And we are not spared the sight of piles of corpses – these were as evident in Warsaw's Jewish ghetto as they were in the death camps.

The Pianist opens in 1939 Warsaw, shortly after Poland's defeat to Germany. The film's protagonist is celebrated Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who, along with his family, is forced to watch as the restrictions against Jews become increasingly more odious. Initially, Jews are forbidden from eating in certain establishments, walking in public parks, or sitting on public benches. Soon, they must wear distinguishing armbands, bow to Nazis passed in the streets, and walk in the gutters. Eventually, all Jews in Warsaw – approximately 500,000 –are moved into a ghetto, where whole families are crammed into single small rooms. After the Nazis begin implementing their "Final Solution," most of the Jews in Warsaw are shipped to the concentration camps to be exterminated. Only those capable of labor are allowed to remain behind. Wladyslaw is separated from his family at this point. He remains behind as part of a work force, while his family is herded into a cattle car. Eventually, with the help of the underground, Wladyslaw escapes into hiding, where he battles starvation, disease, and cold until the arrival of the Soviets.

The only actor to have significant screen time is Adrien Brody, whose forceful portrayal of the title character represents one of the year's best male performances. Brody starts the film as a cultured, intelligent Jew, but, by the time the film has entered its final act, he resembles a cave man. His speech has been reduced to grunts, his shaggy hair and gaunt appearance recall images of those dying in the not-so-distant extermination camps, and his goal of survival has devolved into two things: a hunt for food and a flight from predators (the Nazis).

Recognizing that The Pianist is a true story adds another layer to its impact (although it is the case that most Holocaust films are based on factual incidents). However, it is Polanski's mastery that makes this movie unforgettable. While The Pianist has a strong, clear narrative, the director uses music and images to emblazon Wladyslaw's struggle on our memories. No one who has seen this film will forget the staggering sight of the main character limping down the blasted, bombed-out streets of Warsaw, with twisted, half-destroyed buildings lining the streets and no sign of life. The impromptu "concert" he gives for a Nazi officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), is an equal standout, as music transforms (if only for a moment) the bestial-looking Wladyslaw into a magician with music. The movie ends on the perfect bittersweet note – life and hope have returned, but no aspect of the future will remain untouched by the past.

With The Pianist, Roman Polanski has not only given us the most recent motion picture to remind future generations of what happened under Hitler's regime, but he has also provided us with hope that his own career, after numerous dead-ends, may finally be back on track.

Pianist, The (UK/France/Germany/Poland/Netherlands, 2002)

Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann
Screenplay: Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman
Cinematography: Pawel Edelman
Music: Wojciech Kilar
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Ranked #3 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2002
Run Time: 2:28
U.S. Release Date: 2002-12-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1