Jessica Kate Meyer
Based on the true story of one extraordinary man’s life in occupied Warsaw during World War II, The Pianist marks the first time Roman Polanski has tackled the subject of The Holocaust, a historical event which directly affected his own life. This captivating, harrowing yet unsentimental account has plenty for movie fans, music lovers and the historically involved.
While giving a recital of Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor for Polish radio in Warsaw, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is interrupted by Hitler’s advancing military machine. As the civilised society inhabited by Szpilman and his Jewish family graphically begins to fall apart, Szpilman relies ever more on luck to see his way through the ghettoisation of the Jews, and the subsequent liquidation of the ghetto. Along the way, exactly who is good and who is evil is questioned as we see, in Polanski’s words, “decent Poles and evil Poles, decent and evil Jews, decent and evil Germans”.
From the early indignity of having to wear identification armbands and being barred from bus seats and restaurants, through the confiscation of homes and property to the indiscriminate killing practiced by Nazi officers, The Pianist feels like a personal experience rather than a director’s attempt to summarise every fact of the period. It benefits from the approach.
And as the subject matter would suggest, this film not for the faint-hearted. Scenes of persecution and murder are depicted in chilling detail, while the supporting cast – including Maureen Lipman as Szpilman’s mother – are faultless at portraying compelling characters. Brody, however, is the revelation. His cultivated good looks and engaging delivery are more than a little suggestive of Nigel Havers at his best. But after the liquidation of the ghetto, his family’s forced departure and Szpilman’s escape into the ruined cityscape around him, Brody turns his hand to playing a desperate man with disease-induced injuries and epic quantities of hair. And he’s just as convincing – for he never once makes him a heroic figure.
The role of Chopin’s exquisite music is of course paramount in the story. Through the central section of the film, which features little dialogue, Szpilman’s long battle simply to stay alive is borne out by the lack of music. In one heartbreaking scene, he is put up in a safe house and finds that a piano has been left in it. Yearning to play it but fearful of discovery, he resorts to “air piano” – his fingers playing the piece an inch above the keyboard. And when, later, he is discovered by a benevolent Nazi commander (Thomas Kretschmann), the reintroduction of music into the film as Szpilman plays literally for his life is as compelling a cinematic event as you’ll see all year, and one of the film’s most astounding.
Brody is magnificent throughout in a performance worthy of a slew of awards, and Polanski’s direction is at once restrained and personal, making for a film that sits alongside the best accounts of the Holocaust, including Schindler’s List. The accurately rendered sets, based around a recreated complex of Warsaw’s streets in the Babelsberg Studio, an old Soviet army barracks, a small town in the former East Germany and the rundown Warsaw district of Praga, convey an incredible authenticity. And Anna Sheppard’s costumes for the cast of – literally – thousands display a remarkable attention to detail.
And yet the most astonishing aspect of The Pianist is the story on which it is based, penned by Wladyslaw Szpilman himself. The composer died in 2000, at the age of 88, a few months before production of this film began. Intense, epic and moving, his account of World War II is ultimately one of an ordinary man forced by circumstance to be extraordinary – and helped not a little by Lady Luck. The Pianist is a fitting memorial for the man, his people and the suffering they endured.