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Pianist, The
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by Stephen Groenewegen

"Grace notes"
4 stars

Although not strictly autobiographical, The Pianist is a work of great personal significance for director Roman Polanski. It tells the story of a young Polish Jew who survived World War II and the Holocaust. Polanski escaped the Cracow Ghetto through a hole in a barbed-wire fence when he was seven. Leading composer and pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman was one of 20 Jews left in Warsaw when the war ended (at the start, there were 360,000).

Szpilman’s memoir, Death of a City (later retitled and re-released as The Pianist), was first published in 1946 and has been adapted by English playwright Ronald Harwood (The Dresser). As played by American actor Adrien Brody (The Thin Red Line, Summer of Sam), with a faultless accent, Szpilman is a sober and composed young man. He continues playing Chopin’s “Nocturne in C sharp Minor” live on air even as the Nazis bomb the Polish state radio station.

Polanski introduces us to the Szpilman family during a series of brisk opening scenes. We experience through their eyes, swiftly and matter-of-factly, the worsening humiliation and persecution of Jews after the German army occupies Poland. Initially forbidden from entering certain cafes, soon Jews are unable to visit public parks, sit on street benches or even walk on the footpath (their place is in the gutter).

Next, they are segregated in a Jewish district. A wall is built around it, shutting them in and a steady supply of decent food and medical supplies out. The precinct quickly becomes a filthy Ghetto. Divisions break out amongst the inhabitants, even as they struggle to maintain their pride and dignity. By 1942, cattle trains packed to suffocation point with Jewish people depart Warsaw on one-way journeys to Nazi “work camps”.

These scenes are haunting and shocking, and Polanski moves through them quickly, aware that we may have encountered this material before. When Szpilman is separated from his family and becomes part of the enslaved Warsaw Ghetto workforce, the random inhumanity of the Nazis becomes almost unbearable to watch. But then The Pianist takes an unexpected turn. The eerie and suspenseful second half follows Szpilman’s attempts to survive in Warsaw after escaping the Ghetto.

There’s an element of banality in Polanski’s theme of music as salvation, but we also witness the drawbacks of Szpilman’s devotion to his art. Music helps Szpilman endure the war by alternately nourishing and torturing him. Forced to live silently, concealed in an empty apartment, he must endure the plodding and childlike strains of a piano through the walls (the musically talentless neighbour of course turns out to be a shrewish Nazi sympathiser). The next safe house contains a piano, but Szpilman can only lift the lid and run his fingers silently over the keyboard - across the road is a German hospital and police headquarters and he daren’t make a sound.

His celebrity as Poland’s foremost concert pianist initially enables Szpilman to work in the Ghetto and later saves his life. People in the underground feel altruistic for helping an artist but others are not above trading on Szpilman’s name for their own ends. It is also his music that grants Szpilman an unexpected chance at survival in The Pianist’s extraordinary final act.

The Pianist is full of haunting images, such as the rake-like, haunted and solitary Szpilman walking amongst a street of bombed-out houses in the snow. There’s also the burnt shell of the Ghetto, vacant windows like the staring sockets of a mask, after the suppression of the Jewish uprising in 1943. Pawel Edelman’s cinematography moves though a palette of greens and ashen greys before taking on a golden glow at the end as Szpilman lives to play in front of an orchestra again.

The Pianist is a large-scale international co-production (French-Polish-German-English) with Germans playing Nazis and English character actors mostly taking the part of Polish Jews (Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman play Wladyslaw’s parents). Occasionally, the large mélange of nationalities and accents is distracting, but Polanski manoeuvres his enormous cast smoothly. Only one leering Englishman, playing a Judas radio technician, has walked straight off a pantomime stage.

Brody is powerful and affecting as Szpilman - he disappears into the role. It’s not easy to portray this much suffering without begging for the audience’s approval or trying to appear noble. Even though it’s a necessarily reticent performance, it’s impossible to not be moved by this emaciated and ghost-like figure shuffling through the snow.

Polanski handles the powerful, raw subject matter with grace and effectively builds a mounting sense of dread during the first half. The Pianist is remarkably even-handed - it features good and bad Poles, Jews and Germans. You can imagine even a well-intentioned Hollywood film diluting the power of Szpilman’s story by telling it in flashback, interrupted by scenes of Brody in aging make-up talking to his grandchildren.

Polanski’s achievement lies in telling a single, personalised story of the Holocaust without losing sight of the wider historical-political context. Despite some of the twists in the story, The Pianist always retains a strong sense of history rather than fiction.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=6413&reviewer=104
originally posted: 12/07/02 01:08:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/29/13 The Big D Grim account of the devastation the Nazis caused--watch it for historical significance. 4 stars
11/27/10 Yael Lenkinski Unbelievable! Masterful and horrifying. Adrian Brody was amazing. 5 stars
3/29/07 fools♫gold As passionately pinching as "Dead Man Walking"! 5 stars
1/22/07 MP Bartley Schindler's Lite 3 stars
12/13/06 Xan It's my opinion it's very good movie ;] 5 stars
11/26/06 Bitchflaps Overwraught and uninvolving. 2 stars
11/21/06 DarkEnchantress it was good, and funny because he never left his damn watermelon! 5 stars
11/13/06 ericka sanchez is a excelente movie 5 stars
11/02/06 KATIA LOVED THE MOVIE!!! 5 stars
10/08/06 edgar mahe this movie should be given 5 stars no less great performance 5 stars
7/11/06 ian afford surprisingly good 4 stars
3/19/06 Jason B A worthy riposte to Adorno's claim "that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz" 4 stars
9/19/05 Carlos Great Movie 5 stars
9/15/05 Daveman Better than Schindler's List, as if that really takes much. 2 stars
9/11/05 Ashleigh Yucky, Gruesome-kinda 4 stars
9/09/05 Alex so the guy outlasted them all, eh? 1 stars
8/18/05 ES Dry, but had its moments, better than the english patient 3 stars
8/07/05 Moctezuma Classic 5 stars
4/03/05 indrid cold Quite overrated. Schindler's List makes this look like extremely pointless and ponderous. 3 stars
3/14/05 brody WOW..... 5 stars
3/05/05 dr Dre yo mi homie bruthaz this is mad u must c it ppl its fully sick'a 5 stars
1/22/05 revenge of the poo-nuggets BRODY IS A NEVA 5 stars
1/04/05 magaafi you feel great for having freedom after this 5 stars
12/28/04 Steve Newman Movie title put me off - I am so embaressed. What a fantastic film - off to buy the dvd 5 stars
12/14/04 Tom Benton Polanski's best film by far, a war masterpiece; Brody is outstanding. 5 stars
10/25/04 ELI Chicago was better, but this movie good too! :) 5 stars
10/24/04 Andy Boy A meaningful movie - it reaches out to the soul. 4 stars
10/03/04 Daveman Despite nice photography and high detail, the Pianist just doesn't go anywhere new. 2 stars
9/25/04 Tor Honolulu Dude if you feel asleep its your loss. Wake up and see this, you'll be glad you did 5 stars
7/27/04 Mike Devans Yawn. I fell asleep 2 stars
7/24/04 Drew-P Brody will never be able to top this. 5 stars
5/15/04 KRG1 The best film of 2003...a true masterpiece 5 stars
4/14/04 Charlene Javier Ranks up there with Schindler's List. 5 stars
3/28/04 Margie great movie. such a moving subject obviously, but the music (or lack of) adds soo much 5 stars
3/26/04 Gretchen good movie, sometimes sad but moving 4 stars
3/26/04 Vikki Fox very poignant but slow at times and very depressing 4 stars
1/22/04 Chloe Brody This movie was amazing - Adrien at his finest! 5 stars
1/21/04 Kutty A very sincere and practical movie 5 stars
1/17/04 noeline mcintosh fantastic 5 stars
1/09/04 Charles Tatum "Schindler's List"-good 5 stars
11/30/03 s. pye still stunned that it relly happened. 4 stars
11/27/03 John most shokingly real portrayal of the holocaust yet...Polanski at his best 5 stars
11/17/03 CHlo GYllenhaal this was fucking amazing...i love adrian brody 5 stars
10/24/03 hayley and melanie Good interesting movie, a little sad at times 4 stars
10/17/03 Suzanne McNaughton sad, thought provoking, nail-biting and inspiring , really enjoyed this movie 5 stars
10/09/03 Elise Wolmarans Very moving, I was there! 5 stars
10/06/03 Sonja Kennedy Brilliant and very real 5 stars
9/28/03 Hooters gurl Didn't like the reference to socialism, but other than that...it was tits! 5 stars
9/28/03 Honolulu Tur Just terrific; should have won Best Pic too but can't complain since Adrien & Roman won 5 stars
9/16/03 Jinnvisible a subtle masterpiece "Awesome" don`t really say it 5 stars
9/13/03 K. Morris Sobering, Empowering and Insightful! 5 stars
8/17/03 Flounder A very powerful and haunting of a survivor of the Holocaust 5 stars
8/16/03 R.W. Welch Has a few weak spots but overall a captivating WWII survival tale. 4 stars
8/09/03 mister great movie 5 stars
6/08/03 May Q. Horney What an insult to nominate this alongside garbage like SHITCAGO! 5 stars
5/28/03 A film observer A finer Holocaust film won't be made, because no director will be left who lived it. 5 stars
5/01/03 lauren great 5 stars
4/27/03 Lesly great movie. touching, emotional and so real.. Props to Brody 5 stars
4/23/03 Ralph R. Clemente Most important film of the last 10 years 5 stars
4/16/03 skye brutal. must see once. 4.5 stars 5 stars
3/28/03 Suzz Fine film; very fine performance by Brody. 4 stars
3/19/03 Shadaan Felfeli I cannot recommend this film enough. Oscars please ! 5 stars
3/08/03 Sam Sorrons No words can discribe this 5 stars
3/07/03 Matthew Smith a repellent experience, although it still is an interesting film 3 stars
3/07/03 Dee Martin Brody and Polanski should both win an Oscar. Nothing less. 5 stars
3/06/03 Edith the Maid and Meredith the Mermaid Polanski deserves Oscar for this and a pardon so he can accept it! 5 stars
3/02/03 John Bale Yet another Holocaust drama, albeit a powerful yet harrowing one. Polanski's Triumph. 5 stars
2/12/03 Mopsa I expected something better, but it's a good movie and Brody is terrific 4 stars
2/06/03 Taje Amazing, Dark, and Hauntingly Real. A film that everyone must see... 5 stars
2/02/03 rue the whirl gut-wrenchingly good film making 5 stars
1/31/03 Goofy Maxwell As in "My Left Foot", the sole expression of the soul emits from the digits. 5 stars
1/28/03 stephan cenzo incredible, strongly disagree with reviewer, situations and characters self evident 5 stars
1/26/03 Margaret Depicts the sad reality of WWII, moving, powerful! A must see! 5 stars
1/26/03 Adam Thanks God, this film is not a Hollywood version of history 5 stars
1/24/03 Don Guno this is one of the best films I have seen in a long time, Brody was great! 5 stars
1/21/03 Ben Better and less sappy than Schindler's List. A+ 5 stars
1/20/03 Christina One of the most powerful and important films I have ever seen 5 stars
1/19/03 bster "even the bodies lying on the ground seem calculatedly placed" ever seen a Polanski film? 4 stars
1/19/03 Joematters.com The Best 5 stars
1/18/03 Grampy Grehl Excellent! Feel the horror without the banality 5 stars
1/18/03 Rider in the Bloo Better than Schindler's List. Less melodramatic, and more to the point but still powerful. 5 stars
1/18/03 lily great! 5 stars
1/16/03 Wladislaw A humane, convincing account of the holocaust. Never seen anything like it. Superb & Timely 5 stars
1/16/03 Angolmois AveragAverage First Hour, but the Final Hour Is Quite Excellent. A Lot of Memorable Scenes. 4 stars
1/15/03 michael nightingale It was great!...though, i would've liked to seen more coverage of the ghetto uprising 4 stars
1/15/03 Wadyslaw Roman Polanski make the best movie in Poland 5 stars
1/13/03 Conrad Go see it! 5 stars
1/10/03 David Best film about the holocaust I've seen, and a remarkable true story 5 stars
1/07/03 Jim Only average 3 stars
1/05/03 Yael Lenkinski One of the best movies I have ever seen. Adrien Brody should win an oscar as should Polansk 5 stars
1/05/03 stan excellent powerful 5 stars
12/20/02 Me Not U A soon-to-be classic from Polanski. The last hour is breathtaking! 5 stars
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  27-Dec-2002 (R)



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