The Pianist

The Pianist

UK/France/Germany/Poland/Netherlands, 2002. Rated R. 148 minutes.

Cast: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Julia Rayner, Jessica Kate Meyer
Writer: Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman
Music: Wojciech Kilar
Cinematographers: Pawel Edelman, Roman Polanski (uncredited)
Producers: Roman Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde
Director: Roman Polanski


Grade: A- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Read the AboutFilm interviews with Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann.

R oman Polanski continues to be remembered as one of cinema's most accomplished directors despite a career that has seemed directionless ever since his ignominious exile from the United States in 1976. A couple films have found success (notably Tess), while others, like Pirates and The Ninth Gate, have bombed. He has been a director searching for renewed focus, and with the indirectly autobiographical Holocaust film The Pianist, he has found it.

Polanski is himself a Holocaust survivor. Though born in Paris in 1933, he grew up in Krakow, Poland, where he lived in the Jewish ghetto during the war. When the Germans took his parents away (his mother died at Auschwitz and his father survived), Polanski escaped through a hole in the ghetto's barbed wire fence. Thereafter, he hid successfully with help from Catholic families, often finding refuge in movie theaters.

Polanski has always known, he says, that he would make a movie about this era of Polish history, but did not want it to be based on his own life. In Wladyslaw Szpilman, he has found the perfect surrogate to communicate his own experiences.

Szpilman was a celebrated pianist and composer at the time of the German invasion. Since 1935, he had been performing live on Polish radio. He was playing Chopin's "Nocturne in C Sharp" on September 23rd, when the Luftwaffe destroyed the station. Thereafter, Szpilman's life in Warsaw, detailed in his memoir, paralleled that of Polanski in Krakow. Szpilman's family was relocated to the Jewish ghetto, and when they were taken away, he eluded deportation with help from outsiders--including from some unexpected sources--barely avoiding capture several times and living constantly on the razor's edge. It is a story of both luck and endurance, both of which were indispensable to survival.Adrien Brody in THE PIANIST

The Pianist recounts Szpilman's astonishing story in careful, attentive detail, but it is filled with particulars from Polanski's own life, from the reality of life in the Jewish ghetto to the awkward position a woman's corpse assumes after she is shot in the head while Szpilman observes from his hiding place. Instead of relying primarily on digital effects, Polanski has made The Pianist the old-fashioned way, constructing huge elaborate sets to recreate wartime Warsaw, shaped not only by old documentaries, but by Polanski's own memories.

The Pianist is Polanski's most personal work to date, and perhaps because of that, Polanski seems to have rediscovered the cinematic voice he had as a young man. Polanski always had a remarkable talent for portraying psychological deterioration and instability in a quiet, believably unexaggerated fashion while at the same time maintaining a high level of suspense. The Pianist recalls movies like Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, particularly when the protagonist is alone for long stretches of time. The sequence when the starving Szpilman is locked helplessly in an apartment while an uprising rages outside the window bears the director's unmistakable stamp.

Szpilman is played by Adrien Brody (Summer of Sam, The Affair of the Necklace), whom Polanski specifically sought out after a broad casting call for an actor with no experience failed to yield any candidates. To prepare for the six-month shoot, Brody spent six weeks starving himself and intensively studying the piano (with which he was already somewhat familiar) in order to play along with the soundtrack without cutting away. Shooting began with the critical final scenes, in which Szpilman encounters a German officer with unknown motives played commandingly by Thomas Kretschmann (U-571, Stalingrad), whose critical role earned him second billing despite a relative lack of screen time. Shooting then continued in reverse chronological order, because it's easier to put weight back on and trim a beard gradually than to do the reverse. Knowing this makes Brody's transformation from debonair musician to something resembling Tom Hanks in the latter half of Cast Away all the more remarkable.

The Holocaust is a period of history well-mined by filmmakers, and that may be off-putting to some moviegoers. But The Pianist doesn't try to be a movie with important things to say, going out of its way to examine questions of ethics and choices. A film that focuses unwaveringly on its protagonist, The Pianist only records events, often dispassionately. The often heartbreaking details (look for the scene where the Szpilman family shares a piece of caramel in their last moments together) accumulate into a narrative, and the narrative becomes a testament to human capacity for both good and evil, weakness and strength. By retelling specific experiences and not seeking to be a movie "about" the whole Holocaust, The Pianist is one of the best Holocaust movies ever made.

Review © December 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2002 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

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