The Pianist

Adrien Brody is "The Pianist" in his Oscar winning characterization.

Mikometer rating: 10 OF 10

"Anyone is capable of anything, at a given time in history." Roman Polanski, in the documentary on the DVD

"The Pianist"
Directed by
Roman Polanski
on DVD

Mikometer Rating: 10 of 10
Academy Awards: 2002 : Best Director: Roman Polanski Best Actor: Adrien Brody Best Adapted Screenplay: Ronald Harwood


Roman Polanski is, along with a select few aging directors, one of the cinema's last true artistic geniuses. The palpable sense of dread, the immense feelings of desertion and despair, and the attention to detail in the cinematography, no matter who is actually holding the camera, give the best of his body of work a continuity of theme and gives the moviegoer the immersive experience of this palpable sense of dread, and in the best moments of his canon, his films can become a much greater commentary on life, death, history, perserverence, and survival. Sadly, some of the personal tragedies suffered by Polanski himself add this quality to the best of his films, and are responsible for the lack of quality evident in much of the product after the seventies. It was in 1978 that the director chose to leave America for France. (Rather than be arrested for the consensual "rape" of a minor and be thrown in jail.) Subsequently, his work can be dazzling at times, but also a bit uneven and mediocre. When all the pieces fall into place, as they do in "The Pianist", which rightly deserves the awards bestowed upon it,the result is a masterwork by a master artist. "The Pianist" is, to date, Polanski's "Quintessential Movie". It is, as of this writing,the capstone to his career. Like Martin Scorsese's "The Gangs of New York", this is a film imbued with it's director's life experiences. We are taught a vital lesson about history (The book is a true recollection by the real Wladyslaw Szpilman) but are not beat over the head with a message. With a deliberate almost excruciating pace, which unfolds as a series of "Postcards From the Edge of Hell", the audience lives in the skin of the protaganist, and experiences the total tragedy of war, occupation, the fragility of life, the kindness of strangers, and the instinct for survival.
I began "The Pianist" by watching analytically. After all, this is the film that took Best Director away from Marty Scorsese, and Polanski has always been at least as personal an artist as Marty, so my "need to see" quotient was high. I rented it on DVD finally, after seeing empty boxes on the shelf at Hollywood Video for three weeks running. I made a pact that I was buying it this weekend if a rental wasn't available, and a copy came in the store while I was there. I would most certainly have paid the $17.95 to buy it, except I had read there was no director's commentary, usually a sure sign that there is a special edition in the works. The present edition is complete, however, even without the commentary. There are a wealth of special features on the other side of the disc, including an involving "making of" documentary that is far more informative and insightful than the common HBO special. The usual DVD docs are nothing more than extended commercial/trailers for the films."Story of Survival" incorporates a lengthy interview with the director, who details his experiences as a child in Poland and how this influences his telling of the tale of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the pianist, who survives the invasion of Poland, the occupation of the Nazis, the extermination of the Jews, and the destruction of his nation, possessions, and home. I am astounded now, after having seen this beautiful, haunting, brutal, elegaic masterpiece, that I didn't take the time to see it in a theater when it opened.

I remember hearing a friend say, upon reading it was up for oscars last year, that he didn't really want to see it because it was "just another holocaust film."

"The Pianist" might just very well be the definitive holocaust film. The plot is simple to describe, unlike some of the director's ouevre. Szpilman is a pianist for Warsaw Radio when the Germans invade Poland in 1939 and start the gathering, relocation, and decimation of the Jewish population. The character is helped to escape his family's eventual relocation to the death camps and returns to the empty ghetto where he survives as one of the Jewish Laborers. Next he is helped by members in the underground and is "hidden" in a series of flats. After four years of starvation and sickness, he is helped by a German Officer just as the Russians invade. He ends the film as he begins it, playing piano. The universal message of despair and hope plays beautiful, and this is by far Polanski's finest film.
Roman Polanski has had a hisory of creating art in spite of personal tragedy and despair. Even though most critics would pick "Chinatown" as his quintessential work, I always liked "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Tenant" (which is being released on DVD July 1, 2003) His films, even as far back as "Knife In The Water" (1962) and "Repulsion" (1965) dealt with some pretty gruesome subject matter. Polanski's story of the holocaust treats the grusomeness of the imagery very matter of factly. The Szpilman family are artistic, comfortable, and happy when the film begins. The early scenes play as scenes from any family, any where, any time. But Polanski's sense of realism and attention to detail serve all the more to show the audience that these events did happen, and could happen to anyone, at any time, and as unthinkable as it might seem, Polanski shows the audience exactly what happened in all the terrible detail. "The Pianist" is a work of art that deserves it's accolades, and silently and effectively shows us a personal view of events which have been shown to us many times, but remain unspeakable and horrific. This is a personal work in more ways than one. Roman Polanski survived the same events. Adrien Brody, who plays Szpilman in his oscar winning performance, models his character in part on Polanski.

The manner in which the story is told is very simple and yet a stroke of genius. The first thing we see are black and white "newsreel" films of "Warsaw, Poland 1939". Next we see a close up of the Pianist's hands as he plays a concerto in the radio station downtown where he works. A technician looks at him from the broadcasting booth enjoying the music. Abruptly, without notice, before one has time to think, the bombs explode. First, far away, then closer. Then the windows blow out of the building. The Pianist stops playing. Chaos ensues. We meet the energetic, outgoing, funny and likable Szpilman just as his life is going to change drastically. The series of scenes, by now nearly ubiquitous in "holocaust films", of his Jewish family's fate, the selling of the possessions, the relocation to the ghetto, the indignities suffered by the elderly, the crowding while being boarded onto the death trains, all these are shown with warts and all as a series of "blackouts" which do not dwell on any one aspect of, but by their brevity and that particular sense of detail, seem fresh and horrible all over again. Most people probably would think of Stephen Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (1993) as the Quintessential Holocaust movie. For me it was the 1978 NBC miniseries "Holocaust". The scenes detailing the same "subject" are masterfully detailed in another miniseries, "War and Remembrance" (1988) "Schindler's List" is mighty. omnipresent and grandiose. A bit overblown as well. The Pianist is up close and personal. I haven't "cried" at the movies in a while. That has always been one of the indicators that the director was taking me on a particular emotional trip. With this film, it is near the end of the best scene in the movie, and undoubtedly the one which convinced Academy voters to give Brody the prize. (Another upset for me, who picked Nicholson) Nearing the advance of the Russians and about to face retreat, a German officer discovers Szpilman in the attic of an abandoned building and in the interrogation, asks him what he does. After finding out he is a pianist, the officer points to a piano and asks him to play. The audience has only seen him play in the first scenes, and the character has been hungry and desparate at this point for many years. He begins slowly, his fingers instinctively hitting the notes. (Brody studied piano for the role, and we see his own hands, by the way.) As the music fills the air, with an increasing vibrancy and ebulliance, we see the look in the officer's eyes, and know that he is astounded that such beauty can exist amid such horror. In fact, it is this beauty, the art of music, that fuels Szpilman's survival, and the officer decides to help the fugitive, rather than mindlessly kill him as we have seen all the other Germans do. These kinds of scenes are special to me, and are of merit to humanity. They are what elevate some films to exist as works of art, and "The Piansit" qualifies. Production design is excellent. As Scorsese duplicated Five Points in New York in the late 1890's, Polanski and his production designer Allan Starski have recreated Warsaw before and during WWII. Created not in the computer, but in Poland on a "set" built into one of the few remaining districts in Warsaw, the look of this film is lush, sweeping, and realistic. That Polanski tells a "personal story" focusing on one man, and his struggles as he is claustrophobically trapped in this horror ( a major theme in "The Tenant") helps to create the sense that the audience isn't "watching a movie" like "Schindler's List" with the symbolic little girl in the red hat, but actually experiencing the horror themselves. All told, in spite of the terror and matter of fact way Polanski presents the macabre scenes, "The Pianist" is an uplifting portrait of humanity's ultimate sense of good and decency. Martin Scorsese will have to make another masterpiece now, because Roman Polanski did deserve the Best Director Oscar for "The Pianist". It's "just another holocaust movie" that matters!

Roman Polanski tells the tale of the Holocaust through the weary eyes of Wladislaw Szpilman.

"The Pianist"

Alain Sarde and Robert Benmussa present a Roman Polanski film, released by Focus Features. Director Roman Polanski. Writer Ronald Harwood. Based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman. Director of photography Pawel Edelman. Production designer Allan Starski. Editor Herve de Luze. Costume designer Anna Sheppard. Music Wojciech Kilar. Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes MPAA Rating: R

CAST:
Adrien Brody .... Wladyslaw Szpilman
Thomas Kretschmann .... Captain Wilm Hosenfeld
Frank Finlay .... Father
Maureen Lipman .... Mother
Emilia Fox .... Dorota
Ed Stoppard (I) .... Henryk
Julia Rayner (I) .... Regina
Jessica Kate Meyer .... Halina
Michal Zebrowski .... Jurek
Wanja Mues .... SS Slapping Father
Richard Ridings .... Mr. Lipa
Nomi Sharron .... Feather Woman
Anthony Milner .... Man Waiting to Cross
Lucy Skeaping .... Street Musician
Roddy Skeaping .... Street Musician

MFN 6/15/03

 

 

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Review written June 15, 2003 by Michael F. Nyiri. Most photos are taken from the Internet Movie Database website

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