The Pianist
review by Elias Savada, 27 December 2002

Before the bombs were dropped on Warsaw in September 1939 (as depicted in Roman Polanski's Holocaust survival story The Pianist), they were falling all around New York City's Minskoff Theatre. In early December (2002), critics were pummeling David Ives, Jim Steinman, and Michel Kunze's Dance of the Vampires, a musical adaptation of Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (an adorable 1967 horror comedy released in England under the play's title). While DOTV will be kept temporarily afloat by having Phantom of the Opera's Michael Crawford comfortable ensconced in the belfry as the head bloodsucker, Polanski will have a longer stay and be much better represented on either end of Broadway with The Pianist, his well overdue cinematic silver lining. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last May, honored by the Boston and San Francisco film critics as the best film of the year, The Pianist marks Polanski's painful, poignant, and triumphant return to the Directors' Circle, a lofty tier he visited with Repulsion (1965), Rosemary's Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974) and lastly, in 1979, with Tess.

Having escaped the Nazis himself … the bombing of Warsaw and imprisonment in the Cracow Ghetto … Polanski uses his haunting childhood memories to bring the horrifying, hopeful story of renown composer-pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman to life. He actually begins The Pianist with a tickle of false hope, but doesn't let his audience retract for more than two hours from his retelling by screenwriter Ronald Harwood (based on the 1946 autobiography) of the ensuing horrors that befell the Szpilman family during World War II. The announcement that England and France have declared war on Nazi Germany only briefly forestalls the family's expected departure from the city. Believing "Poland is no longer alone," all thought of packing a lifetime's belongings into a handful of suitcases is put aside. The family embraces, serves itself a celebratory dinner, and Papa (Frank Finlay) toasts to the Allied powers, "All will be well."

But the clinking of the crystal is quickly overwhelmed by the thunderously bootfalls of the German soldiers goose-stepping through the ruins of the city. Wlady attempts to carry on his life. The radio station where he played Chopin having been destroyed, he finds the mounting restrictions against the Jews a minor inconvenience in finding work and freedom. The initial, non-violent restraints forbid entry to restaurants, parks, and—half-jokingly in a conversation between Wlady and his bright-eyed, blond-haired, non-Jewish friend Dorota (Emilia Fox) -- the public benches. Quickly the harassment escalates; the must-be-worn Jewish Star of David emblems, the face slappings, and the eventual redistricting of the city. On October 31, 1940, the procession into the Warsaw Ghetto begins a deadly chapter for the Szpilman family and those herded in the muddy streets around them. Vast starvation, abject fear, horrible acts of desperation, gratuitous arrests, massive humiliation, gallows humor. Death becomes an indiscriminate and arbitrary decision at the hand of the tormentors.

By mid-August 1942, the Szpilmans are briefly separated. Wlady, his father, mother (Maureen Lipman), and sister Regina (Julia Rayner) pray that siblings Henryk (Ed Stoppard) and Halina (Jessica Kate Meyer) are better off. Reunited to share a small speck of caramel (their last supper), the family is crammed forward into the freight train that will ferry them to the death camp at Treblinka. While the German soldiers amuse themselves with anecdotes about their quarry's trip to the "melting pot," Wlady is reluctantly rescued by a collaborator and forced to return to the ghetto, its streets littered with the belongings of the dead and soon-to-be.

Wlady begins the film's second hour alone, tearfully wandering the streets filled only with empty souls and lost luggage. He eventually flees the ghetto, and with the help of Dorota, is shuttled from one hiding place to another, only to become a front row spectator of the April 1943 ghetto uprising. On the brink of discovery, he escapes to a secure, safe apartment, but is soon forgotten by the underground until near death. With the outbreak of fiery resistance in August 1944, he breaks out once again, spending the last hour of the film playing an escalating game of fat German cat and emaciated Polish Jew mouse, once playing dead in full sight of a passing squad of Nazi soldiers.

Adrian Brody IS The Pianist. Yes, there is a director, a writer, a great cinematographer (Pawel Edelman), some incredibly realistic production design by Allan Starski (who won an Academy Award for his work on Schindler's List), and painful to view makeup (Didier Lavergne and Waldermar Pokromski), but without Brody The Pianst does not breathe. This performance is one of the best of the year, particularly absorbing is the subtlety he lends to the role of an innocence observer, never once raising a gun against the enemy. His weapons are the music in his mind and ability to transfix an audience with it, no matter what their political association. Brody's Wlady is a wounded bird wanting to flee his cage and play. Just play. Much like Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away, Brody is often left alone on the screen for extended periods of time, put through the paces by a director who squeezes every ounce of emotion from his subject. The relentless journey to death, and the luck that keeps him from it, is only broken when his long fingers mimic playing the piano. Given an unusual opportunity to play when discovered by a compassionate German captain (Thomas Kretschmann) during the last moments of the film, that is bittersweet food to feed his hungry soul, despite the freezing cold and an empty stomach.

Around him, thousands of souls were lost by despicable atrocities hoisted by the Nazis on the Jews, but Wladislaw Szpilman as embodied by Adrien Brody and steered by the vision of Roman Polanski makes The Pianist a supremely hopeful cautionary tale of war's madness remembered that we, today, can prevent its tragic waste of life. Here is a divine monument to a single man's struggle to regain his life, his dignity, and his music.

Read Cynthia Fuchs' interview.

Directed by:
Roman Polanski

Adrien Brody
Thomas Kretschmann
Frank Finlay
Maureen Lipman
Emilia Fox
Ed Stoppard
Julia Rayner
Jessica Kate Meyer
Ruth Platt

Written by:
Ronald Harwood

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult 






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