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THE PIANIST

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann
Director:  Roman Polanski
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  150 Minutes
Release Date:  May 27, 2003

“Must feel better on this side of the wall, huh?”

“Yes…but sometimes, I’m still not sure which side of the wall I’m on.”

Film ****

The last ten years have seen some rather extraordinary motion pictures about the Holocaust, with each managing to carve out its own unique niche along the way.  The king of the hill remains Schindler’s List, the most realistic, which attained a horrifying level of truth that hadn’t been depicted before.  There was also The Grey Zone, the darkest of the films, and Life is Beautiful, the most fantastic.

Now comes The Pianist, the most intensely personal and the crowning jewel in the remarkable career of Roman Polanski.  What makes this movie so incredible is not just the technical or emotional achievement it represents, but the feeling it invokes that the art here is inseparable from the artist.  Other filmmakers might have been able to make a good film from this material, but they would have never made THIS movie.

Polanski returned to the city of Warsaw where he hadn’t directed a picture since his first feature Knife on the Water, but it was more of a homecoming than that…it was also a return to the setting where, as a child, he witnessed firsthand the Nazi occupation and the extermination of the Polish Jews.  Polanski survived the ghetto massacres when, at age 7, his father pushed him out through an opening in the barb wire fence.  Most of his childhood was spent in fear and hiding, relying on the kindness of strangers and seeing the most evil of horrors with his own eyes.  He survived, as did his father.  His mother died in the gas chambers.

With the autobiography The Pianist, one senses that in Wladyslaw Szpilman Polanski found a kindred spirit.  Szpilman, too, was a survivor, and his tale was not only one of courage, but of luck and providence as well.  Szpilman lost his entire family to the Nazi death camps…yet he managed to stay alive and live to a ripe old age as a witness to one of history’s blackest moments.

When the movie opens, Szpilman (Brody) is playing piano on Polish radio as the first German shells hit Warsaw, and we see the first example of the man’s pluck:  while everyone else runs, he keeps playing up until the moment it’s no longer possible. 

With the Germans controlling the city, Jewish families like the Szpilmans see the changes coming in fast and sinister fashion.  Their economic status is restricted, their identities made public by the forced wearing of armbands, and eventually, their home is lost as all Jews are relocated into a centralized area.  We watch with Wlady and his family as the walls go up quickly, imprisoning the Jews.

But the worst was yet to come…though we witness the Nazis killing at whim, the systematic, organized elimination of the Jews was the ultimate goal.  Many clung to the hope that they would be valuable to the Germans as a work force, but even papers-carrying Jews like the Szpilmans received no special treatment.  The best hope seemed to be for those Jews willing to police other Jews for the Nazis…a chance Wlady is offered, but he refuses.

One fateful day, everything changes for him, in a passage of events that unfold with astonishing speed.  As the Szpilmans are rounded up toward the trains that would lead them to the death camps, a one-time family friend, now a member of the police force, grabs Wlady and pushes him through the line of guards.  He tearfully screams for his mother and family, but fate has dealt him a card both merciful and terrible.  His family will not have a chance.  But he will.

From that point on, the film follows Wlady on his remarkable adventure, for lack of a better word, of survival.  Freed from the ghetto but far from safe, his existence requires the help of old and new friends making up the Polish resistance.  He hides away in abandoned buildings, where he spends weeks and weeks alone, frequently starving, and silent for fear of being discovered.  In one locale, he is even met with a piano that he can’t play, and he mimes his hand movements over the keys while imagining the music in his head.

This was the way his life unfolded for several years…isolation, hunger, thirst, and occasional close calls as the Nazis continued to patrol the cities looking for those in hiding who would fight back.  Wlady witnessed several skirmishes from his window, and occasionally heard a bit of hopeful news such as the declarations of war on Germany by England and France, but for a man so hopelessly cut off and alone, there was no way to assemble those bits of news flashes into a coherent picture of the war at large.

All of this culminates in one of the most remarkable motion picture sequences I’ve ever seen.  When a hobbled, gaunt and weakened Wlady is finally discovered by a German officer (Kretschmann), he is taken to a piano and asked to play.  As he sits, a strange shaft of light beams down and illuminates him.  He’s freezing; you can see his breath as he plays.  His first notes are simple and ginger, but soon the music escalates into a powerful cascade of humanity.  Everything he’s felt for the last several years comes through in the sounds:  his fear, his anger, his heartache, his hunger, his guilt at having lived while those he loved died.  We realize watching him play that this could be the last thing he does on this earth…and he says everything with his music that he could have never expressed with spoken words.

It is perhaps the final twist of dramatic irony in Wlady’s real-life experience that a Nazi officer did indeed feed, clothe, and hide him during the waning weeks of the war.  And so he survived.  Only many years later was the German officer’s name finally discovered, along with the record of his fate:  dying in a Russian POW camp not long after the end of the war.

In the post war years, Wlady returned to prominence as a pianist and composer, and continued to make music until his recent passing as an old man.  His story was unusual if for no other reason than he managed to do what millions of other Jews in Poland could not do:  he lived.  Partly by courage, partly by will, but largely by providence.  It took a great deal of luck and help for him to escape his fate…yet escape it he did, and he lived a full life as an eyewitness to one of mankind’s worst atrocities and a testament to why history must never be repeated.

Adrien Brody was the right choice for this role…his kind face and sad eyes are the perfect instruments to reflect the horror, sadness and determination that make up Szpilman.  The Oscar for Best Actor might have just as easily gone to Jack Nicholson or Daniel Day-Lewis, but few could argue that Brody’s mantel wasn’t equally a deserving resting spot.  Screenwriter Ronald Harwood also took home top honors for his adapted screenplay.  And, of course, veteran Roman Polanski scored a big win for his directorial efforts.

Polanski has made many films over the years that I’ve cherished, from Rosemary’s Baby to Chinatown, but The Pianist is his truest and most personal expression as an artist.  Other directors have said what they wanted to say about the Holocaust in their work, but none have had so much to say as Polanski. 

This is not a film about optimism triumphing over adversity or about the human spirit being hot-wired for survival under any circumstances.  This is a stark, harrowing yet brilliant reminder of how fate can sometimes give us a second chance, but we can never take that for granted.  Hitler was an evil, murderous lunatic who almost succeeded in world domination.  He was thankfully defeated, but not until terrible and irreversible damage to the human landscape occurred.  Even so, it could have been much worse…and if we’re not careful enough to keep history from ever repeating, next time it might be.

Video ****

Universal has had a Tim Duncan kind of season with their DVD releases this year.  Some of their offerings so far are ones I’d rank amongst the most reference quality discs on the market.  The Pianist is stunning, and its superior anamorphic transfer is one of the most film-like I’ve had the pleasure of viewing.  For a movie where every corner is filled with details that Polanski felt were too important to overlook, this DVD doesn’t miss a trick, from intense crowd scenes where not an individual gets lost in the mix, to the amazing photography of the sets in all kinds of lighting.  Colors, lights and tones are used in subtly expressive ways.  Viewers will note the cool feel to the sorrowful scenes in the ghettos and throughout the bombarded Warsaw, while scenes suggesting optimism take on a sunnier, more heightened quality.  Every frame is presented with integrity, distinct coloring, crisply rendered images and freedom from distracting grain or compression.  Easily one of the year’s best, but also one of the best ever.  (A full frame version is also available; but don’t cheat yourself out of a remarkable viewing experience by opting for it.)

Audio ***1/2

With choice of Dolby Digital or DTS, the audio presentation is lively, dynamic, and filled with moments that light up all of your speakers for intense wartime action.  My only surprise was how very sparingly the subwoofer was used given the number of scenes of gunfire and explosions and such.  A little extra kick from the .1 channel could have raised the intensity to an even higher level.  Still, the other speakers seem to carry the extra burden with no problem, and the DTS track in particular is impressive in its ability to convey the illusion of distinct sounds emanating from different layers of space.  One of the keenest tricks involves not the percussive sounds of war, but the simulation of the ringing in Szpilman’s ears after a near miss…very realistic.  Overall, very very close to being perfect.

Features ***

The extras aren’t plentiful, but the disc still merits a high rating for its superb documentary inclusion, which is one of the best ever featured on a DVD.  “A Story of Survival” tells not only about the making of the film, but about the actual historical events as recalled by Roman Polanski.  His memories, mixed with some rare Nazi archival footage of the Warsaw occupation and the Polish Jews being rounded up for the ghettos make for both a powerful viewing experience and an invaluable history lesson.  But there are also lessons for film students as well, as Polanski and his crew are generous with details in how they strove to make The Pianist as authentic as possible, and actor Adrien Brody details his chosen withdrawal from friends, family, foods and modern life in general as he set out not only to re-create the role of Szpilman, but to experience his journey first hand as much as possible.  And speaking of Szpilman, who passed away in 2000, there are even clips of the maestro at the piano.

There is also an understated trailer, talent files, and production notes.  All the features are on side two.

Summary:

The Pianist is an extraordinary motion picture detailing a remarkable true story of survival amidst one of history’s darkest periods.  In the hands of Roman Polanski, it became a gritty, personal statement about the horrors of the Holocaust as well as a reminder to modern audiences that sometimes fate can deal us a second chance.  If we’re lucky enough for that, as was Wladyslaw Szpilman, we had damn sure better make the most of it.