Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
After the impressive achievement of Schindler's List, The Pianist may have seemed
redundant to many moviegoers. This story of one man's survival, limited to his point of view,
is much smaller in scope than Steven Spielberg's holocaust tale. But, unlike Spielberg, director
Roman Polanski was there and lived through the events shown. And even though most of
List was in excellent taste, it still has the feel of an artist aestheticizing history
to make it accessible to modern audiences. List is an excellent and needed primer that
explains complicated events in storybook terms. The false sentimentality that
spoils one key scene near the end, can't harm the essential goodness of that movie.
No stranger to horror, Polanski responds to the overwhelming evil of the Nazis by reverse means. The
script is an oppressive first-person narrative in the director's proven brooding style. In the rushed,
fearful atmosphere, characters don't stop to verbally explain themselves or spill exposition for the
benefit of the audience. Infrequent text cards surface to announce dates and major events, like the
This absence of authorial sermonizing allows us to experience Szpilman's ordeal directly, leaving us to
come to our own moral conclusions. Szpilman survived, giving The Pianist an equivocal happy
ending that makes it bearable as entertainment for general audiences. It was the best film by far of 2002.
Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) a celebrated classical pianist, is playing
on the radio in Warsaw when war breaks out. Unable to leave and unwilling to break up, his family slides
slowly into the Nazi trap for urban Jews: they're systematically deprived of their rights and
finally walled up with hundreds of thousands of others in the Warsaw ghetto. Saved from an
extermination train by a stroke of luck, Wladyslaw spends years in work camps and various hiding places,
half-starved and sick. He watches the ghetto revolt from his window, and tries to survive
the last weeks of German occupation in the middle of a demolished city.
The best quality that Roman Polanski brings to The Pianist is neutrality. As he says in the disc's
docu, there were good and bad Jews, good and bad Christians, and good and bad Germans. Szpilman runs into
people of both descriptions, and is the grateful recipient of mercy from individuals on all sides. His
other survival skill is his sheer anonymity. When German officers cull victims from a work squad, he's
never chosen to be liquidated. Another German soldier is so unimpressed by the weary-looking
Szpilman, he doesn't think to thoroughly search a food bag for smuggled weapons.
Szpilman's story is one of extraordinary luck; thin and delicate, the musician doesn't look a likely
candidate for survival. But the desire to continue his art is the engine that keeps him alive, and many
who meet him are motivated to help. Actor Adrien Brody's best scenes are those in which we physically
identify with his experience. When he paces hungrily, robotically through his little hideout,
he reminds us of poor Catherine Deneuve going mad in Repulsion, hiding like an animal. Going
for weeks daring not make a sound, he retains his sanity by playing a piano silently, his
fingers hovering in the air. Our identification is so
complete, we share Szpilman's joy in slipping into his first warm bathtub in months.
Polanski maintains total control while creating a convincing pre-war world. The real Warsaw was razed by
the Germans, and after the war was mostly rebuilt to a new plan. A number of fully-functional
streets were constructed for the film, and the Ghetto was recreated by partially demolishing acres of Russian
Army barracks in East Germany. It's not as if a whole city was created, but the streets, which
we see almost exclusively from the
limited viewpoint of Szpilman's various hiding places, are as vivid as real memories.
Polanski's approach to the material respects the fact that the whole subject is already charged with
extreme emotions. Our viewpoint as movie spectators matches Szpilman's - he can't do any more about what he's
seeing than we can. The slaughter outside his window is witnessed with a detachment that doesn't give rise to
sadism, or encourage visions of heroic intervention. With the violent scenes in Schindler's
List, we're always hoping someone will rescue the very personalized victim of the moment. We're
also invited to view the creative sadism of the Nazis - shooting people in a line like
Pancho Villa, or idling away the time with random sniping into a work camp.
Here, the killing is anonymous and remote, and there's nothing in the brutality to excite a sadist.
Few will remember the specific individuals wiped out by the Nazis on the street. Szpilman can't see individual
faces, and witnesses a larger pageant of horror. Polanski's style overcomes the essential problem of
dramatizing such overwhelmingly serious events - when the victims are personalized as individuals, it
trivializes the subject. Two solid hours of people being killed still wouldn't begin to encompass the
enormity of the Nazi crime.
Polanski is very aware that his job was to restrain himself and his creative collaborators from injecting
unnecessary drama into Szpilman's experiences. Using his skill to bring things into relief, he admits that
this is not a documentary, that events had to be molded into a film experience. The details are second-hand
(from Szpilman's book) but also first-hand (filtered through Polanski's experience). Little kids were
smuggle things through tiny holes under the ghetto wall; as a child Polanski was one of these children. The
scene of Adrien Brody trying to save one such kid, stuck under the wall and being beaten to death, is
Universal's DVD of The Pianist is a masterful presentation of last year's hit, which had a good long
run enhanced by its best actor win ... Brody's romantic Oscar-acceptance stunt didn't hurt either.
The enhanced picture and sound are as perfect as one would expect in a new film as this. The film is on
one side, and a number of extras on the other. A trailer and some text extras augment a long and
thorough docu called A Story of Survival. It uses vintage film, interviews, and clips with the real
Wladyslaw Szpilman to tell both his story and that of Roman Polanski's; Polanski is interviewed at length
and shown directing the movie as well. Other interviews are with Brody, screenwriter Ronald Harwood, and
Polanski's designer and costume person. Polanski's wisdom on all things filmic keeps this show absorbing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Pianist rates:
Supplements: docu, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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