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Player Piano


The Pianist

Roman Polanski, Poland/France/UK/Germany, 2002

Rating: 4.1



Posted: February 5, 2003

By Laurence Station

Polish composer/pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, spent the years 1939-45 in constant fear of capture or death because of his Jewish heritage. With The Pianist, the film adaptation of Szpilman's autobiography, fellow Polish Jew Roman Polanski (himself a survivor of the Nazi occupation) gives us a brutally unflinching look at one of the darkest periods of the last century. There's certainly no shortage of films about the Holocaust, from Schindler's List to Jacob the Liar. What sets The Pianist apart, however, is the veracity an eyewitness like Polanski brings to the account of a fellow observer. That, and the fact that the film is more concerned with the death of Warsaw -- its people and infrastructure -- than the fate of those carted away on cattle trains to Treblinka.

Dramatically, the source material presents something of a problem; going in, the audience knows that Szpilman will survive to write his memoirs. The drama, then, comes from Szpilman's firsthand observation of the horrors inflicted on his fellow Jews. Szpilman is our camera into Warsaw. Unfortunately, he's also a cipher; we don't learn much about him, and his emotions are primarily conveyed through his piano playing. Adrien Brody does a credible job in portraying Szpilman, a non-participatory bystander repulsed by what he sees but ultimately too terrified or indecisive to act, his wounded eyes and emaciated frame imparting Szpilman's horror, and his constant hunger -- the threat of starvation looming just as large, if not more so, than that of murder. (The thought of patrons sitting in their comfy, high-backed seats, munching on enormous tubs of overpriced buttered popcorn while watching his film must have carried special appeal for Polanski, a director who's always enjoyed manipulating, even torturing, his audience's expectations. To his credit, though, Polanski plays it fairly straight here, offering neither the creepy insinuation of Repulsion nor the teasing menace of Rosemary's Baby.)

The film begins with the bombing of Warsaw in 1939, showing Szpilman in the middle of a performance for Polish radio before the German Luftwaffe literally blows him off the air. Szpilman and his family become our focal point as we witness the systematic decimation of Warsaw's Jews: the initial decrees that forbid them from keeping more than a modest amount of money in their homes; the Star of David armbands; relocation to walled-in ghettos; shockingly violent (and often just plain psychotic) treatment at the hands of the Nazis; and, finally, deportation to Treblinka. But as his family is being herded onto a train bound for the camp, Szpilman is pulled out of the line by a sympathetic Polish guard and sent back to the ghetto, where he becomes a laborer for the Germans, only to flee when talk of Jewish revolt against the Nazis moves closer to action.

The second half of The Pianist proves more problematic than the first. Szpilman spends the remainder of the film in hiding, no longer an up-close almost-participant in the events around him. High in an apartment flat, he watches Germans battling insurgent Jews, and then, in another safe house, observes the tide turning against the Nazis as Polish reactionaries attack a German hospital. That Szpilman suffered during this time is irrefutable, and his inaction, while cowardly, is certainly understandable. But from a cinematic standpoint, he's merely reacting to what he sees, and that proves counterproductive to the momentum established in the first half. And since Szpilman's survival is guaranteed, there's decidedly less dramatic tension in the final act -- which the audience spends virtually alone with Szpilman -- than in its earlier going, where we're caught up in the lives of people whose fates are less certain.

That said, The Pianist's most stirring moment comes towards the end, as Szpilman is discovered by a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann). Szpilman's bottled emotions come pouring out as he performs for the Nazi Captain, a key moment in which Polanski emphatically and optimistically hammers home the concept of art's triumph over despair. This is echoed after Warsaw is "liberated" by the Russians, and Szpiman finally performs, on Polish radio, the Chopin piece he was unable to finish six years earlier. Although we never really get to know Szpilman as a person, we do connect with his music, a haunting elegy for his devastated city, which meshes seamlessly with Wojciech Kilar's beautiful score. (Likewise, Pawel Edelman's photography of bombed-out Warsaw proves striking without being garish, using deeply muted colors to covey a profound sense of loss.) Ultimately, then, The Pianist proves less a character study than a powerful examination of the disintegration of a city and its people, both Jew and Gentile. And in that respect, Polanski has delivered one of the most emotionally direct, powerfully-felt films of his long and controversial career.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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