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The Pianist (R)
Focus Features
Official Site
Director:Roman Polanski.
Producers: Robert Benmussa, Roman Polanski, Alain Sarde
Written by: Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman.
Cast: Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox, Maureen Lipman, Frank Finlay, Thomas Kretschmann.

Rating: out of 5

In 1939, Wladyslaw Szpilman was one of Poland’s most celebrated concert pianists. Even if you’ve never heard the name, you know of Szpilman’s footnote in history: He was playing a Chopin nocturne when the Luftwaffe bombed Poland’s state radio station. His interrupted performance was the last Polish state radio broadcast for six years.

The change in fortunes of Wladyslaw, his father, mother, brother Henryk, and sisters Halina and Regina, is presented as a history of the Warsaw ghetto experienced through the Szpilman family. Complete with dates that correspond to Nazi edicts governing the lives of Poland’s Jews, The Pianist at first comes across as the sort of earnest historical drama one might catch on PBS or A&E, albeit one with very high production values.

On the day of the radio station bombing, Wladyslaw arrives home to find his family packing. Urged to gather his things, he tells his mother, “I’m not leaving. If I’m to die, I prefer to die here.” With our advance knowledge of the fate of Warsaw’s Jews, we’re rooting for the Szpilmans to hit the road. But when a BBC broadcast tells that England has declared war on Germany and that France is expected to, they set down their suitcases. Sooner than they could have expected, they hoist those suitcases again, this time to move from their comfortable family apartment to two rooms in the newly declared Jewish zone of Warsaw. From there, they move yet again, to a workhouse further within the walled ghetto, and finally, to the depot, to board the train to the concentration camps.

Up to this point, and this is easily an hour into the movie, I sat wondering, “What makes this particularly about The Pianist? It seems to be a general history.” Then, as the Szpilmans move through the crush of Jews boarding the train, a hand reaches out and snatches Wladyslaw from the crowd. A Nazi collaborator, who’d previously asked Wladyslaw and Henryk to join the ghetto cops, saves his life. Wladyslaw joins a workgroup and is briefly involved with resistors who smuggle weapons into the ghetto, before he escapes into greater Warsaw. As he moves outside, the world changes from the muddy, slate grey of the ghetto to a palette of normal colors. There’s even clean white snow.

Musician friends in the Resistance hide him in a series of flats, smuggling in food and occasionally, medical attention. His days are spent just barely breathing, staying as quiet as possible so that no one will detect his presence. In one flat, he must suffer being on the other side of the wall from a piano, played rather badly, too. And—oh the irony!—his next flat actually contains a piano. Eventually, the Warsaw Uprising leads the Nazis to raze the neighborhood where he was hiding. Not much I’ve seen has matched the emotional power of the scene where an emaciated Szpilman desperately scrabbles over a wall to escape flamethrowers, only to find a moonscape of bombed-out, abandoned buildings lining the street as far as the horizon. The pianist takes refuge in the attic of a building that becomes a Nazi staff HQ, and is discovered by a Nazi officer, Captain Hosenfeld.

“What do you do?” Hosenfeld asks.

“I am… I was a pianist.”

Since the building houses a piano, the officer invites him to play, and sits unmoving, but obviously moved, as Szpilman plays Chopin Ballad No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23 (recorded by Janusz Olejniczak). Hosenfeld tells him to return to his hidey-hole, and brings him food for the remaining few weeks of the war.

Once again, as with The Grey Zone, we have a great film about the European Jewish experience in WWII. The common thread that makes these movies fine is their lack of sentimentality and monolithic nobility. Szpilman’s world contained good and bad people of every kind—Jewish, German, or Polish gentiles. Viewers of movies about these perilous times need no emotional guidance. The events speak loudly. Indeed, in The Pianist we get matter-of-fact scenes of cruelty so awesomely capricious that I could only think that the Germans must have been mad, must have all consumed lead in their drinking water. We need no prompting to determine that this one is noble, that one inhuman. We require no guidance to figure out what’s shocking and what’s uplifting. Are you listening, Mr. Spielberg?

Szpilman, in hiding, had almost Forrest Gump-like positioning to witness WWII history. Sensibly, Polanski resists the temptation to do more than lay these events before us. That’s not to say that he rested on his laurels. The unembellished life of Szpilman is on screen, but the hand of Roman Polanski is evident in the visuals and the performances. The performances of the supporting characters are uniformly fine, especially that of Dorota (Fox), a young gentile who clearly held Wladyslaw’s affections, pre-war. It’s probably a quibble to note that some actors indulged that British thespian tendency of fondness for affecting Eastern European accents and some did not, resulting in uneven notes in conversations, but it was occasionally jarring. Just how does Roman Polanski do it, anyway? How does he pull these performances out of actors? Think of the surprise of Harrison Ford in Frantic, or the never-again-matched excellence of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and of Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby. Here, Adrien Brody (King Of The Hill, Summer Of Sam, The Thin Red Line), who as Szpilman, is in nearly every scene, gives one of those performances that will always be the one you think of when you think of him. Thomas Kretschmann (Queen Margot, U-571, Blade II), as the Nazi officer who aids Szpilman in the last days of the war, really danced on the knife’s edge to create a man of both duty and humanity without making him all icky and maudlin. The soundtrack may be too much Chopin for some tastes, but you do get to hear wonderful pieces of music in their entirety. Highly recommended.

—Roxanne Bogucka


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