When the Germans invade Poland in 1939, the family of talented Polish pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is shattered – as are all the Jews in Warsaw (and beyond). Shocked and terrified by the atrocities on their doorstep, the family is first rounded up with other Jews into a newly created ghetto and finally herded onto a train with thousands headed for the concentration camps. But a Polish policeman acquaintance pulls Wladyslaw away from the train at the last minute, and the pianist spends the rest of the war in hiding, relying on the kindness of strangers. Almost starved to death, he manages to elude capture – even when face to face with a German officer, who commands him to play an abandoned piano in a shelled out house. Based on the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman.
Review by Louise Keller:
There are many reasons to see Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Is it because it won prestigious Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2002? Or perhaps because this is a Roman Polanski film and this is the first film he has made in Poland in 40 years. (He escaped the Cracow Ghetto at the age of 7 through a hole in a barbed-wire fence). Or is it because it is just a good story? Or a superb film filled with unforgettable images and resonances about the human condition? All are valid reasons, but for me the impact of how connected and moved I felt to the characters, proved to be a humbling experience. A strong script, powerful direction and splendid production design allows us to be transported into the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman, who is not only a pianist, but a good human being. At first the problems to be faced are where to hide the money and the valuable watch, but then the problems become far more serious as Jews are branded with a blue star of David band on their right arms, are moved into a segregated district and become subject of cruelty and unimaginable horrors. Citizens are shot for asking a simple question, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. United by their sorrow and grief, thousands of Jews struggle to survive. ‘Food is more important than time’ says Szpilman, as he gives his watch away to be sold. For about half of the film, we almost forget that Szpilman is a pianist, as he hides, escapes and struggles to survive. I like the scene when he is hiding in a flat that happens to have a piano. But he cannot play it, or he will be discovered. He lifts the lid, and plays air piano; we hear what he hears in his mind – the glorious music. When he plays for the German officer in a performance for one when the stakes are very high, it is indeed a poignant moment. Then the Russians invade Poland, and fates change. Superb performances and Adrian Brody as Szpilman offers a rich and heartbreaking portrayal. It is impossible to watch The Pianist without become involved. But while it’s a shocking and tragic story as we watch the overt cruelty of the Germans as they treat the Polish Jews with total disregard for humanity, The Pianist also offers hope and reassurance in the dignity and richness of the human spirit. As the end credits roll, all the folly, drama, cruelty, compassion and pain are expressed through the music, as we watch nimble, expressive fingers caress the keyboard.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Painful, harrowing, heartwrenching, terrifying, moving, anger-generating and riveting though it is, The Pianist is marred by the understandable awe and respect which Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski approaches the film. His desire to tell a story so important to him personally allows indulgences because he’s too close to his material. This might seem a brutal, or at least insensitive thing to say coming from someone who has lived through a similar example of human - bad - behaviour (in the wake the second world war). It’s a well meaning criticism, because it’s a terrific achievement, and the film craft on display here is exemplary in (almost) every way. The only weakness is the structure, which elongates past the comfort zone of modern audiences. While it’s true that it’s an extraordinary story, it is also true that films have dealt with the subject in a myriad ways now, and economy of story telling would favour the film’s chances of being seen more widely. It would be wrong headed (and wrong hearted) to dismiss the film as yet another anti Nazi melodrama, because it’s honesty, and its basis in fact make it something special. Quite apart from the evil of Nazism, there is a ray of light in this story, a ray that illuminates humanity. It comes near the end of the film and is its saving grace. We leave the film with greater understanding and less hate; there is a sense of catharsis and moral cleansing – a fra cry from the misused term ‘ethnic cleansing’ (which should be eradicated from all journalists’ vocabulary). The Pianist is playing a familiar tune, but very well.
Email this article
PIANIST, THE (MA)
CAST: Adrien Brody, Daniel Caltagirone, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard
PRODUCER: Robert Benmussa, Roman Polanski, Alain Sarde
DIRECTOR: Roman Polanski
SCRIPT: Ronald Harwood (book by Wladyslaw Szpilman)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Pawel Edelman
EDITOR: Hervé de Luze
MUSIC: Wojciech Kilar
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Allan Starski
RUNNING TIME: 148 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: UIP
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 6, 2003