The Pianist (10/10)

 Copyright © 2002 by Tony Medley


The Pianist is Roman Polanski’s second movie since 1995, and it’s a doozie.  Although Polanski says there’s nothing autobiographical in the film (actually it’s the film of the autobiography of Polish concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman [Adrien Brody]), Polanski did live through the Cracow Ghetto and the bombing of Warsaw as a child. He does draw on his personal experiences. When one Jewish woman is executed, Polanski remembered how the woman collapsed in a grotesque pose.  Brody reports that when the extra who was being shot didn’t fall the way Polanski remembered, he showed her. Brody says, “For a director to show an extra how she should act, actually falling to the ground in the snow, was extraordinarily impressive to me.”

 Similarly, Brody went above and beyond what’s normally required of an actor to play a roll.  He lost 30 pounds before shooting started.  Shooting out of sequence, the scenes in the Ghetto, near the end of the film, were shot first, after Szpilman had endured years of starvation.  “I was so weak I could barely climb over the wall,” says Brody of one scene where he reenters the Ghetto.

 But that’s not all.  The film starts with a shot of hands playing Chopin.  The camera pans up the arms to the face of Brody, establishing that he’s actually playing.  “While I was losing my 30 pounds, I was immersed in learning how to play the piano.  Whenever you see me sitting at the piano playing, that’s actually me playing what you’re hearing.”  For six weeks Brody starved himself on a diet of 2 boiled eggs for breakfast, a small helping of chicken for lunch, and a small helping of meat for dinner, all the while studying the piano.

 As a result of the attention to detail and commitment of Polanski and Brody, this is a harrowing, realistic story of what it was like to live in the Warsaw Ghetto and under Nazi occupation.  It shows how fast death could appear, and how arbitrary it was.  The execution scenes are chilling in their quotidian occurrences.  The Pianist epitomizes the banality of evil of which Hannah Arendt wrote.

 Polanski creates a world that no longer exists, the Warsaw of the Ghetto, and it looks as if it were filmed in 1943.  Szpilman was a nationally famous Polish pianist before the Nazi invasion in 1939, when the movie starts.  Shortly thereafter the Holocaust overtakes them and their lives become a living hell.  The Pianist shows how life continued, despite the cruelty and brutality, and how Szpilman survived.

 There are people who took care of him, like Wermacht captain Wilm Hosenfeld (ably played by Thomas Kretschmann, who knows what life is like under totalitarian rule from personal experience, having escaped from East Germany when he was 19), a music enthusiast who spared Szpilman’s life.  The film shows others who risked their lives for  Szpilman.

 This is a fascinating, intense 148-minute movie.  There are no really graphic scenes of violence, like limbs being chopped off, or people being raped or tortured.  But this is old-fashioned movie making at its best.  What you don’t see, you feel.  In the end, The Pianist is an uplifting film, showing how one person can survive in a world gone mad.  The acting, writing (Ronald Harwood), directing, and cinematography (Pawel Edelman) are as good as it gets.  Winner of the Palme d’Or (best picture) at the 2002 International Cannes Film Festival, it should be a sure-fire Oscar nominee.

 December 8, 2002

 The End