Directed by Roman Polanski. UK/France/Germany/Netherlands/Poland. 2002.

Reviewed by Jaap Mees and Howard Schumann


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The first great film of the 21 century...

The moment I heard that Roman Polanski was going to make a film about the master pianist Wladyslaw Szplimanís book Death of a City, I knew it was going to be a great film.

Szpilman, like Polanski,  survived the Second World War atrocities in the Krakov Ghetto in Poland. Steven Spielberg asked Polanski earlier to direct Schindlerís List, but that project was to close to his own experience, he knew many people personally.

Some critics and friends of mine have called The Pianist cold, detached and conventional, but I canít believe they have seen the same film. The Pianist is a sublimely made film, with a very detailed and accurate depiction of life in a Jewish ghetto, extremely well acted by Adrien Brody (Thin Red Line, New York Stories), with help of a superb production designer Allan Starsky and with some of the most moving scenes I have ever seen.

Adrien Brody in The
                    Pianist. All Rights Reserved.The Pianist proves again what a skilled, perceptive, psychological astute and brave filmmaker Roman Polanski is, because it must have been very hard for him to revisit the locations, look at the archive footage of the brutal and ruthless Nazi killings and refresh painful memories. Both Polanskiís parents were taken to camps, his mother a few months pregnant didnít survive, his father miraculously came back from the labour camps. Admirably Polanski approaches this film with restraint and almost deals with it in a documentary-like manner; probably the only way to tell a horrendous story like this. 

The Pianist shows an ordinary Jewish family with Wladyslaw (Adrien Brody)  and his brother, two sisters and parents living a normal life in Warsaw. The first bad sign of the looming tragedy is the obligation for Jews to wear David stars in 1939. Then property and funds are confiscated and food rations limited. Jews are not allowed to use public transport or walk in the parks or sidewalks on the street.

The Jewish Ghetto is eventually walled in and sealed off from the rest of the inhabitants. Polanski shows all these  repressive measures in a factual way. There is also the blunt and matter-of-fact raziaís and executions of  Jewish people. The dry and very realistic sound of the gunshots are very chilly. There is a horrible scene during a raid on a Jewish family: an old man in a wheelchair is thrown off the balcony. We see all this happen through the haunted eyes of Szpilman. 

There are a couple of scenes I will never forget, like when Szpilman comes back after his family is taken away by train to the death camps in Treblinka, he walks crying in the street, completely alone and surrounded by devastating ruins. That scene is essential in the film, because both the character and the audience  need to relieve the pain they feel by having witnessed the ruthless atrocities.

At the end of the film Szpilman has to play a piece of Chopin to prove to a German Captain Hosenfeld who discovers him,  that he really is a concert pianist. In a freezing room Szpilman plays his heart out and impresses the German, who helps him to survive until the Russian troops liberate Warsaw. When the Nazis retreated in 1945 there were only 20 Jews left alive in Warsaw!!

Itís interesting to see how little music is played during the film, but the music is probably more a metaphor for the beauty and creativity of life, overshadowed and destroyed by the brutality and destructiveness  of war. 

When Szpilman hides from the Nazis at several addresses and later on in a destroyed hospital, he looks like a haunted bird-like creature, with long hair, a beard and an expression in his eyes which shows all the terror, deep suffering and loneliness he had to go through..

And then there is Johan Sebastian Bach. Towards the end of the film Szpilman hears a woman friend playing  the Suite No1 BWV 1007 on her cello. All the indescribable suffering of the whole film is compressed in that incredible moment.

I felt like I was burning through my chair; from now on that beautiful piece of music will for me always be connected to The Pianist.

The Pianist is a sublime film in all senses and thoroughly deserved to win the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival 2002, chaired by David Lynch.

Jaap Mees

The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski, is the story of Polish-Jewish classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman who lived in hiding for two and a half years during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Both Polanski and Szpilman shared a similar experience in the war and both survived to enrich the world with the power of their art. Adapted by the playwright Ronald Harwood (The Dresser) from Szpilman's memoirs, the film is a powerful indictment of the horrors of the Holocaust told through the perspective of a lone survivor, one of only 200 of the Warsaw Ghetto's 400,000 Jews. Working as a radio pianist in Warsaw, Poland at the time of the Nazi invasion in 1939, Szpilman and his family were rounded up and "relocated" to an area of Warsaw set aside for Jews. The step-by-step brutalization of Warsaw's Jews is devastatingly recorded by Polanski's camera --from having to wear identifying armbands to being banned from parks and public benches. As played by the brilliant Adrien Brody, Szpilman's demeanor slowly changes during the course of the film from cockiness to growing desperation.

When Szpilman's family is herded onto a train en route to certain death at Treblinka, he is pulled aside by a Polish policeman he knew and sent back to labor detail in the ghetto. After being promised assistance from the underground, he escapes and spends the rest of the war on the run, going from one safe house to another. When help is no longer forthcoming, he has to hide in the attic of a bombed out building, struggling to elude capture and to find scraps of food to survive. The Pianist is strongest in depicting the horrors of daily life in Warsaw during the war and there are truly shocking moments. Polanski does not flinch from showing us children shot in the streets, an elderly man thrown to his death in his wheelchair, and a young boy crawling under a stone wall, getting half way through, then grabbed from the other side and beaten to death. 

The Pianist. All Rights
                    Reserved.This is a film whose images will remain etched in your memory. Thomas P. Muhl, who underwent a similar experience in Budapest, attests to the film's eerie authenticity in his memoir Retouching Stalin's Moustache, (Xlibris Publishing). He recalls "the hiding in abandoned apartments and being spooked by objects the people had left behind like unfinished cups of coffee, scarfes, and toys. Looking out the windows of these places, feeling trapped and seeing the poor people being hauled away from across the street, wondering when my turn will come. Sneaking around at nights in other apartments during an air raid, looking for food and being afraid that one of the neighbors would rat on me. The sense of total devastation around me, ruins and corpses."

The Pianist is an honest film that refuses to trade on sentimentality to achieve its power. Szpilman's reluctance to let us in on his thoughts about his family, friends, and the people who helped keep him alive make him appear aloof, but the reality is so far beyond normal comprehension that emotional numbness may be the only appropriate response. When Brody finds a kindred soul in the German Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) who discovers his hiding place, however, we are finally drawn into the humanity of his character. It is here that the soulful music of Chopin's Nocturne in C played by Szpilman in a hollowed-out apartment in the midst of desolation lends a bizarre beauty to the unfathomable night.

Howard Schumann

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