NOTE: The "skip it" rating for this release is based solely upon the transfer TVA elected to utilize for this "Limited Soundtrack Edition," which is truly a shame - with a better transfer, this could have been the definitive version of the film on DVD.
There are many moments in The Pianist that register indelibly: a shot of a little girl, alone and scared, at a gathering depot; a dazed walk down a street littered with human remains; bricks accidentally falling from a construction site; a pistol running out of ammunition, perhaps suggesting a respite from its brutal function; the horrific murder of a man in a wheelchair. An otherworldly sequence follows the perspective of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) as he moves over a wall to survey his ghetto surroundings, now utterly decimated – although presented in a straightforward manner, it achieves a wholly surreal quality through its triumphant set and production design.
The sequence I have been unable to shake, however, would initially seem less daunting: it concerns Szpilman and a metal container of cucumbers he has found in what he thinks is an empty building. At this point in the film Szpilman is physically and mentally exhausted - a shell, really - bearded and completely haggard. Desperate to open this container, his focus prevents him from fully taking in his immediate surroundings, nearly resulting in his capture and likely death.
These moments represent Polanski at his best: although such scenes are presented in earnest and thoroughly dramatic, the director is also keenly aware of just how ridiculous and absurd the situation is (Szpilman and his beloved pickles would appear almost strangely comical if taken out of context – there is another sequence featuring a Nazi winter coat that is equally absurd and quite funny in the blackest possible sense).
These passages render The Pianist a mature and rewarding work, utterly clear-eyed, sober, and thoroughly unsentimental. Observed and filmed from an emotional distance (remarkable for a film such as this) and peppered with moments of gallows humor typical of Polanski, the film's presentation is refreshing – if not especially comforting – and more than a little disconcerting.
Polanski has indicated previously that he wanted to work with the Holocaust as subject material for a feature, but had never had any success in finding a story he deemed appropriate to his particular worldview. This, based upon his collection of films, is not terribly surprising: he has always possessed a shrewd eye for the absurd and the perverse; however, he has never demonstrated a tendency toward maudlin sentiment or preaching, components that often flavor and inform enterprises such as The Pianist.
When Polanski read the memoirs of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, it seemed a natural, perfect fit. As Polanski notes in an interview on the extra-laden second disc of this three DVD release, Szpilman's recollections were objective and calmly factual. Moreover, his memoirs were written directly after the war, which allowed little time for either philosophical or greater historical perspective. His accounts of all parties involved (Nazis, resistance fighters, and even his own family) were notable in that he refused to categorize in easy, black and white little boxes – there were good Nazis and bad Nazis in his experience in the ghetto, just as there were good Jews and bad Jews. Further, Szpilman's story shared striking similarities to Polanski's childhood in that it concerned the loss of his family and his methods of survival in the Warsaw ghetto (Polanski lost the bulk of his family - with the exception of his Father - and was held in the Krakow ghetto as a young boy until he escaped with the assistance of others).
The Pianist, winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and multiple Oscar winner (Best Actor for Adrien Brody, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay by Ronald Harwood), is a film notable for its perfect marriage of subject matter and director and its cool, measured tone that never resorts to off-the-cuff sentimentality and/or emotional shorthand – The Pianist earns every emotion it evokes.
Szpilman (Brody) is introduced sitting at a piano in a Polish radio station, appearing somewhat stiff and almost diffident. As bombs begin to explode nearby, he refuses to yield until one detonates at a nearby window (reminiscent of Bergman's Shame, which shares a similar theme of an artistic/intellectual couple who attempt to remain somehow removed from war until its power indiscriminately invades some extremely personal space). As Szpilman's family is introduced discussing the changing aspects of Jewish life as a result of the Nazis, the film notches its only real shortcoming: they are presented as an almost banal series of archetypes (which, perhaps, is an accurate representation, although it certainly feels a bit forced), prone to bickering and some awkward dialogue. However, once The Pianist moves past this early portion of the film (which includes a small gem of a moment when Szpilman tells his sister that he wishes he knew her better as they are about to board a train headed for the camps) it begins to move into murkier, expertly handled territory.
Szpilman is saved from the train leading to the camps in a quick, ad hoc fashion, which is not far removed from the general presentation that Polanski and Harwood utilize. The violence, for example, is at once both random and methodical, truly disturbing in its banality. Although the camps are never seen, the carnage employed is witnessed in other contexts: whether it is the result of an impulsive Nazi officer during a drunken New Year's Eve, or a planned, summary execution on the street, Polanski's camera never blinks. Admirably, he also resists the temptation to imbue his protagonist with anything more than a desire to survive, aided by the benefit of timing and luck (music may have kept his spirit alive, but it does not do much for the physical body). Helped by members of an underground network, Szpilman is moved from location to location and left alone for long interludes. Isolated and near the end of his tether, he witnesses the continued destruction of his environment and its inhabitants from a remote, mostly removed position; left to his own devices, it's amazing that anyone in his position could remain living, let alone sanely so.
The ending, it should be noted, would ring spectacularly false if it were not based in fact; because of Polanski's deft handling of the material preceding the ending, the conclusion of The Pianist - though hopeful - is terribly ironic as well.
Brody's performance (which garnered him the Academy Award for Best Actor) is extraordinary in its moments of stillness. He is required to convey much in the latter portions of the film without expressing himself verbally, and it is in these sequences that he truly shines. Reduced to a pathetic state and wasting away, Brody impressively uses his expressive facial features to convey emotion and thought. Information as to Szpilman's personality (aside from his obvious musical gifts) is not made explicitly available to the viewer, as the narrative is pared down to an individual's desire and ability to survive in extremis. Moreover, since the presentation is so relentlessly unsentimental, Szpilman's distance (and by implication, the viewer's) proves a wise dramatic choice. I'm not sure if a more detailed portrait of the man would have benefitted The Pianist – since its concern is with the human in general as much as it is with this particular individual, it would probably be moot. As it is, failure to identify with Szpilman's struggle is virtually impossible.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this 3-disc "limited edition" features the film in its entirety on disc one. The transfer utilized is problematic: it has been taken from a PAL source and converted to NTSC. This means that if viewed on larger, high definition screens, ghosting will appear. I viewed this release on a 36" flat screen with the "anamorphic squeeze" enabled. The ghosting was not overly aggressive, but the transfer also appeared to have lost some of its theatrical sheen. This is not a spectacularly awful transfer – it's simply not as good as it could and should have been. Unfortunately, it is my understanding that the ghosting (the result of the difference of frame rates) will be much more pronounced to the home video enthusiast with higher end equipment (such as HDTV), especially during scenes featuring motion. This is truly a shame – although not acceptable for any transfer, the fact that this conversion was used for such a high caliber film (in a "limited" edition release, no less) is all the more confounding.
I have not seen the Universal transfer released in Region 1, but from what I have read it is superior in virtually every regard. If that transfer had been included in this package, it would have undoubtedly made for the definitive release of this film (albeit one that does not include a commentary track). Caveat emptor.
Audio: The audio presentation for the limited edition is excellent across the board and fares much, much better than its video counterpart. Included are a DTS 5.1 and DD 5.1 English tracks, as well as a French DD 5.1 track. Although the Pianist utilizes a modest sound design, the DTS track is robust and expansive when required. Dialogue remains easy to hear throughout, and the scenes that include explosions and gunfire are appropriately jarring and loud. Bass tones are generally rich and deep, and the higher registers (including those in the soundtrack) sound clear.
Only optional French subtitles are included in this release.
The second disc of this three-disc release is devoted entirely to extra features, as noted:
A Story of Survival featurette (39:28): This extra offers a multitude of insights into the production ranging from the extraordinary set design, wardrobe, and deliberate techniques of shooting the Pianist in a low-key, "invisible" fashion. Polanski speaks with candor concerning his personal history in the ghetto, and Brody discusses the sacrifices he made in order to obtain a clearer understanding (or at least an approximation) of what Szpilman must have felt and thought. Many others are interviewed for the feature, and it also includes some interesting behind-the-scenes footage.
Director's Notes: These notes are text based and brief in nature, and are generally already covered in the Story of Survival featurette;
Q&A with Roman Polanski: Again, an informative text feature (though somewhat redundant) that covers much of the same ground highlighted in the documentary;
The Warsaw Ghetto: Historical Background: Another valuable, text-based feature which includes historical and factual perspective on the ghetto, such as the alarming information that although upwards of 500,000 people were confined to the ghetto, only 20 Jews remained alive at the end of the war – one of which was Szpilman;
Sample Tracks from the Sony Classical CD: This feature includes two tracks taken from the soundtrack release (included in this release as Disc three: Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor and Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72, No.1;
Also on board are the text-based Wladyslaw Szpilman Biography and Production Notes; Soundtrack Television Spot; Eight brief Television Spots; Three Theatrical Trailers (1:31, 1:20, and 1:27); and Photo and Poster Galleries, which includes a running commentary for the photo gallery (3:15).
Disc #3: Included is the entire Sony Classical soundtrack, entitled Music from and Inspired by the Pianist.
1) Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (1830)
2) Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72, No.1
3) Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No.1
4) Ballade No.2 in F Major, Op.38
5) Ballade No.1 in G Minor, Op. 23
6) Waltz No.3 in A Minor, Op.34, No.2
7) Prelude No. 4 in E Minor, Op.28, No.4
Grand Polonaise brillante preceded by an Andante spianato, Op. 22
8) Andante spianato in G Major, Tranquillo
9) Grande Polonaise in E flat major, Molto allegro
10) Moving to the Ghetto Oct. 31, 1940 (film score)
11) Mazurka in A Minor, Op.17, No.4
Final Thoughts: As opposed to other narrative-based films concerning similar subject matter, The Pianist is commendable for its refusal to spoon-feed the audience lofty sentimentality. It also admirably refuses to waver in its straightforward depiction of brutalities dictated by the subject matter at hand. After some awkward exposition in the very beginning, The Pianist quickly develops into a focused and assured portrait of an individual's response to a larger horror, obviously aided by Polanski's own experience with the Third Reich in his native Poland. The film, as such, is highly recommended.
As for the three-disc Canadian release by TVA, I cannot recommend it. To call this release disappointing would be an understatement - it is a squandered opportunity to produce the definitive version of this film on DVD. The second discs of extras, as well as the excellent recording of the film's soundtrack on the third, render it obviously desirable for any collector or fan of the film. Unfortunately, the transfer is simply not up to par (especially for those with higher end equipment), which is even more surprising given the obvious care lavished on the remainder of the release. (TVA at least had the good sense to use the theatrical artwork for the cover.) Therefore, this release is recommended only to the most diehard of completists. Otherwise, I would suggest sticking to the Universal release and picking up the soundtrack separately. It is priced at a suggested retail of 44.95 CDN.