Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox, Daniel Caltagirone, Ed Stoppard, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Julia Rayner, Jessica Kate Meyer, Thomas Kretschmann
MPAA Rating: (for violence and brief strong language)
Running Time: 2:28
Release Date: 12/27/02 (limited); 1/3/03 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik
One of the final title cards in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist tells us that the titular character lived in Warsaw until his death in the year 2000 at the age of 88, and when we read it after watching his experiences in World War II Poland, it sits there without any kind of emotional resonance. It forces one to wonder why that is. Is it because the subject of the Holocaust has been explored so many times that new stories about it hold no weight? One of the things of which the film reminds us is that this is one chapter in history that needs to be told over and over again so that we may never forget. Is it because this specific angle of the story has been told before? The main character escapes the horrors of the concentration camps and spends the length of the war on the lamb. It’s not that either, because I, for one, am not entirely knowledgeable on this piece of history nor do I recall a film before this dealing with it. This truly is a remarkable tale of survival, full of powerful imagery and sorrowful experiences. That Polanski captures these moments on film with such strength is important, but that’s all the film ultimately adds up to—a series of experiences. What happened to the pianist and what he saw are clear, but who he is and what these experiences meant to him are absent.
The film opens in Warsaw in 1939. Nazi Germany has begun its attack on Poland. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), the pianist of the title, and his family discuss the possibility of leaving the city when they hear on the radio that England has declared war on Germany and that France is expected to do the same. It all comes too late for Poland, and soon the sight of Nazis walking the streets of Warsaw becomes commonplace. The events unfold subtly. Jews are not allowed in the parks or in certain stores that wish to show their support for the Nazis. Then all Jews are required to wear an armband representing the Star of David, and now they must bow to German officers who ensure they don’t walk on the streets. Then a plan is announced that will move all Jews into a designated area in Warsaw, far too small to contain the population of 360,000. Meanwhile, Szpilman plays piano in a café and manages to obtain work permits for his family, ensuring their safety for the time being, which turns out to be very short. In August of 1942, Germans force the Jews to travel by train to "labor camps." Szpilman manages to escape with the unwanted help of an old friend, but his family is shipped away.
Working off Szpilman’s own account of his hardships, Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have made a testament to the human will for survival in the cruelest and bleakest of conditions. Szpilman witnesses many atrocities as he hides throughout Warsaw, but he also sees much hope for humanity in the people who assist him along the way—the individuals who risk their lives to save the downtrodden. He cheats death or deportment to the camps multiple times and seems to have never-ending luck. He gains and loses many friends as the six years of German occupation progresses. As the city physically decays around him, so does he, physically and mentally. In the title role, Adrien Brody pulls off an astonishing performance, transforming himself as the years pass from the well-off and famous musician the film finds him as at the beginning to the scrawny and sickly man who wanders the streets and buildings of the abandoned ghetto near the end of the film. Despite spending the entire film with him, the most we learn about this man is his desire to do and help more than he can. In some point during his six year ordeal, we would expect some sort of reflection or introspection about the events that have led him to where he is, but the script merely goes from one event to the next, leaving a potentially fascinating character in the background.
The presentation of war torn Warsaw, meanwhile, is exceptional. Production designer Allan Starski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman give us a startling and haunting vision of the dire surroundings. Buildings are crumbling and aflame from bombings and revolts. Watching the gradual but complete deterioration of the city as the film progresses is disheartening. Edelman’s camera is focused and the camerawork is straightforward, simply capturing events with the cleanest look possible. Polanski has captured a country in a time of turmoil with his film. The way events escalate slowly in the beginning is off-putting, but that’s how it began. No one wanted to risk too much to stand against the Nazis, because with Britain and France as allies, there was no need to. Eventually the reality set in, but by the time a few decided to rise against their enemies, it was too late—the strength in numbers was transported to camps.There’s no reason to stop making films about the Holocaust simply because the story has been told so many times. This is a part of our human history we can and should never forget, and as long as there are new and different voices out there to tell the story, it will never be forgotten. The Pianist is lacking that voice but the power of the tale still remains. As extraordinary as Wladyslaw Szpilman’s story is, I’m certain the man who lived to tell it was equally extraordinary.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.