An emotionally and factually detailed, uniquely personal true story of day-by-day Holocaust survival, "The Pianist" is a labor of passion on the part of director Roman Polanski (who as a child escaped German-occupied Cracow), a monument to those who persevered through the Nazi onslaught and a memorial to those who could not.
It's the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a composer and musician who played -- throughout a German a bombing run -- the last live music heard on the radio in Warsaw as the city was invaded in 1939. It's the story of how he felt hope because Britain and France entered the war, even as his family was one of thousands forced into a small, walled-and-razor-wired ghetto in 1940.
It's the story of how he eluded deportation to concentration camps in 1942 by hiding in the ghetto as it was emptied by German soldiers, how he became a laborer while the Nazi's had use for slaves, and how he escaped and bore witness from a distance to the month-long Warsaw uprising while starving and wracked with guilt in a series of empty apartments where he was concealed by sympathizers throughout the war.
And it's a film whose every moment bristles with the weight of these events on Szpilman's psyche, thanks to a devastating performance by Adrien Brody, an actor naturally adept to characterizing bottomless depth with minimal outward manifestation. Brody ("Summer of Sam," "Harrison's Flowers") is on screen nearly every minute of this two-and-a-half-hour film, and the walking-wounded state of shock he portrays permeates the screen in a way that sneaks into the senses and rattles the soul.
Polanski's powerful, diary-like recreation of specific dates during the Nazi occupation lends enormous weight to the fact that this film is not fiction. In one year, Szpilman (whose autobiography was the basis for the film) saw Warsaw go from a place where he was a respected musician to a place where Jews weren't allowed in public parks and had to wear blue Star of David armbands in public. On October 31, 1940, he saw a virtual prison wall erected around a pre-determined "Jewish district." On August 16, 1942, he escaped the train taking people to the death camps and, in the film's most overwhelming moment, walks with tears in his eyes through the empty ghetto, strewn with debris from houses trashed and emptied by soldiers.
"The Pianist" bears witness to Szpilman's life as a prisoner and a fugitive, locked inside empty flats where he'd been hidden by the underground, having to keep quiet and out of sight, running out of food when his benefactors couldn't visit, unable to turn on the heat or the lights, and keeping a clear path for him to run and jump out the window to his death if he thought the Nazis were about to bust down the door.
While not profoundly moving -- at least in comparison to other films that take place inside the squalid, terrifying death camps that Szpilman managed to avoid -- "The Pianist" certainly captures another kind of horror faced by a lone man hiding for his life in the belly of the Nazi war machine. Nowhere is this reality more forcefully portrayed than when Szpilman comes face to face with a Nazi commandant (Thomas Kretschmann) scouting his latest hiding spot in the bombed-out suburbs for a temporary headquarters in the last months of the war. Forced to play a rubble-caked piano for the officer, he pours all the energy and life he has left in him into this performance that he's almost certain will be his last.
The extent to which Polanski and Brody (who was already skinny but lost a great deal of weight for the later scenes) immersed themselves in this story comes through most completely in this scene. It's clear from the long, single takes -- which include pans from hands to face and back -- that the actor learned not just to play piano, but to play well enough that he could express both immense fear and harmonious grace and splendor all at once in both his acting and his playing.
The terrible beauty of this moment is the movie's every emotion in a nutshell, and the astonishing results a testament to the humanity that can be found in the worst circumstances of dread one can imagine.
Run time: 150 mins
In Theaters: Friday 28th March 2003
Box Office USA: $32.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $120.1M
Distributed by: Focus Features
Production compaines: Mainstream S.A., R.P. Productions, Heritage Films, Studio Babelsberg, Runteam, Canal+, StudioCanal, Bac Films, Canal+ Polska, Telewizja Polska (TVP), Agencja Produkcji Filmowej, Beverly Detroit, Interscope Communications
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 170 Rotten: 8
IMDB: 8.5 / 10
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman, Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, Frank Finlay as Father, Maureen Lipman as Mother, Emilia Fox as Dorota, Ed Stoppard as Henryk, Julia Rayner as Regina, Jessica Kate Meyer as Halina, Michał Żebrowski as Jurek, Wanja Mues as SS Slapping Father, Richard Ridings as Mr. Lipa, Nomi Sharron as Feather Woman, Detlev von Wangenheim as SS Officer, Krzysztof Pieczyński as Marek Gębczyński
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