Long before Rosemary's Baby, the murder of his wife Sharon Tate, and his notorious flight from America, Roman Polanski was a Jewish survivor of Nazi-occupied Poland. He escaped the Krakžw Ghetto at age seven through a hole in a barbed-wire fence. The Pianist, which won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is his first film to deal with the Holocaust and his searing childhood memories. He chose not to film his own story, however, but that of Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose thriving career as a pianist and composer was abruptly halted on September 23, 1939, when the Luftwaffe bombed the Polish state radio station of Warsaw, where he was performing Chopin. Szpilman, 27 at the time, along with his family and Warsaw's numerous Jewish population, soon found themselves herded into the squalid "Jewish District," subject to starvation, disease and random terror by the SS and Gestapo.
Powerfully realized in the production design by Allan Starski (Schindler's List) and the location shooting in Poland, The Pianist puts you in the Warsaw Ghetto. It's a gray, cramped slum packed with gray, emaciated people wearing Star of David armbands, who barely notice a dead child on the ground. In a particularly horrific scene, Nazi policemen entertain themselves by forcing grotesquely mismatched couples to dance to a Jewish street band at a trolley crossing. As an old man with a cane falls down, the Germans laugh and shout "faster."
The film encloses you, much as the brick wall enclosed the 500,000 Jews detained there by 1940, and it haunts you long after you leave the theatre. While not as dramatically or aesthetically daring as Schindler's List or Life Is Beautiful, it is an important film, presenting this devastating moment in history through an artist's first-hand account. Szpilman, who was one of roughly 20 Jews left alive in Warsaw by the end of the war, published his memoir, Death of a City, in 1946. The Pianist shares his detached, objective tone, starting with period newsreels of Warsaw. It proceeds chronologically at a measured pace, framed by performances of Szpilman (Adrien Brody) playing Chopin. The contrast between the music, its delicacy, tenderness, artistry, and the decivilizing brutality of the Nazis, reverberates throughout the film.
Music, literally, saves Szpilman's life. Initially, his status as a renowned musician allows him, his parents, brother and sisters to live in the smaller (relatively nicer) ghetto, and to work as a piano player in a Jewish restaurant. When he and his family are finally forced to board the cattle cars that will take them to the Treblinka death camp, he is pulled aside by a Jewish collaborator/policeman who admires his music, and allowed to return to the Ghetto. When he eventually escapes, he is hidden by a Polish musician he knew before the war, and her husband. And most remarkably, in his final hiding place in bombed-out Warsaw, he is protected by a Nazi music lover, who brings him food and a warm coat. But equally important, music keeps his spirit alive. Although he cannot risk making a sound while hiding in a Warsaw apartment, he sits by its upright piano and moves his fingers above the keys, cherishing the silent music. After the war, he returns to his professional career, and lives to the age of 88.
Brody (The Thin Red Line), whose large, expressive eyes supply much of the dialogue, is utterly convincing as the noble but thoroughly human Szpilman. In the brief scenes before the war, his character displays the confidence and sophistication natural to a nationally recognized composer and pianist. But, as history plays itself out, Brody's Szpilman, always reserved, becomes a perpetually frightened, depressed shadow of his former self. He never loses his will to live, however, or his compassion.
Polanski, like Szpilman, is a camera, witnessing and recording these events so they will never be forgotten. The Pianist does not exploit or simplify its subject; there are good and hateful Poles, brave and selfish Jews, even a kind-hearted Nazi. Its story justifies its nearly three-hour length. When it's over, you've (safely) visited the horror. But, of course, Szpilman--unlike most of Europe's Jews--survived, so the story ends on a note of hope.
Perhaps because so much of the film concerns Szpilman alone, waiting and watching (he views various Nazi atrocities and the Jewish insurrection from his window), it seems emotionally distanced. Once he is separated from his family, he and the viewer lose the drama and life of relationship. When, in the final days of the war, he is discovered by a German, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), only to realize his mortal enemy is actually his savior, the film regains dramatic tension. With the arrival of the Russians, Szpilman steps out into the blighted shell of Warsaw, and into his new life. It is hard not to be especially grateful for freedom after a film like this.
-Wendy R. Weinstein