Rated R - Running Time: 2:28 - Released 12/27/02

The Pianist is one of those films where you leave the theater feeling horrified but enlightened, depressed but exuberant, appalled by the depth to which human nature can sink and yet deeply moved by the triumphs it can achieve. Directed by Roman Polanski, it recounts the true story of noted Polish pianist, composer, and songwriter Wladislaw Szpilman, who barely survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw during World War II, who lost all his family and most of his friends to the death camps, but lived to play again and to tell his story. The film is based on Szpilman’s own autobiographical account, originally published immediately after the ordeal in 1945 (under the title Death Of A City), but suppressed by Poland’s Communist government and only recently translated into English. It is adapted for the screen by South African-born Ronald Harwood, who may have witnessed some racially motivated atrocities in his own life, and the role of Szpilman is played with haunting honesty by Adrien Brody, who is in practically all 148 minutes of film and reportedly lost over 30 pounds for the role. While the story is amazing and the direction by Polanski, himself a Polish holocaust survivor, is superb, it is Brody’s performance, complemented by a talented supporting cast, that makes this one of the best films of 2002.

The story starts on September 23, 1939, the day that Wladislaw, a celebrated performer for Warsaw Radio, was interrupted by German bombs while playing Chopin’s “Nocturne in C sharp Minor” live on the air. As the bombs drew closer, he at first continued playing, but soon the station itself was targeted and he and his colleagues were forced to evacuate. At that moment, the radio station was silenced for the duration of the war. The remainder of the film documents with shocking realism the subsequent horrors endured by Wladislaw, his family, and the entire Jewish community of Warsaw. Beginning with the simple but ever more outrageous restrictions placed on them by the occupying German army (like wearing the Star of David emblems on their arms), followed by the segregation of Jews from the rest of the population by the establishment of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, random and seemingly arbitrary executions of Jews for any number of offenses, the pathetic and failure-doomed attempts by the Jews to fight back against their oppressors, and finally the liquidation of the ghetto as the Jews were transported en masse to the concentration camps in boxcars. It’s still hard to believe that what I’m writing actually occurred within my parents’ lifetimes—that humans could be so cruel to each other and commit such atrocious acts against fellow humans—but Polanski’s depiction is eloquent, touching, and staggeringly real enough that we make no mistake: it really happened, only 60 years ago.

As the war continues, Wladislaw survives by chance, by his instincts, and with a little help from his friends, many of whom would ultimately perish. After watching his father and mother (Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman), his brother (Ed Stoppard) and two sisters (Jessica Kate Meyer, Julia Rayner), and various friends be taken away (and eluding the same fate only by an impulsive act of kindness by someone who knows of his talent), he remains in Warsaw for the next three years, barely living from one apartment or bombed-out building to another, always hiding, always maintaining silence, always searching for food, always one step ahead of the German soldiers who would shoot him on sight if they were to find him. At one point, he is set up in an abandoned apartment by a non-Jewish cellist (Emilia Fox) and her husband (Valentine Pelka), who were fans of his playing before the war; their kindness was of course at great personal risk, as Gentiles who helped Jews were summarily executed. But perhaps the most surprising of Wladislaw’s benefactors is a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann) who helped him survive during the last stages of the occupation even while running his command post downstairs in the same house where Wladislaw was hiding.

The Pianist has won the Palme d’Or (out of 22 nominees) at the Cannes Film Festival, and received 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, but also for Polanski’s directing, Harwood’s screenplay, and the awesomely beautiful cinematography of Pawel Edelman, who is somehow able to capture the squalor of the ghetto, the devastation of the bombs, and the hopeless atmosphere of war-era Warsaw, and still make his subject visually striking. Of course, music also plays a vitally important part in this story, and in addition to the works of Chopin, Bach, and other great composers, the haunting original compositions of Wojciech Kilar add a touching counterpoint to the horrors and triumphs unfolding on the screen. Like Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List, The Pianist contains the most grim and graphic violence, but because of its historical significance and its celebration of the human spirit over adversity, it is an absolute must-see for anyone who cares about history and what the cinema can do to document it. *****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

Current | Archives | Oscars | About | E-Mail