Circumstances, help from his fans and blind luck save a musical prodigy from the concentration camp as the rest of his family is taken away in the powerful personal drama "The Pianist."
By DAVID N. BUTTERWORTH
Based on celebrated pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman's autobiography (and making
more than an implicit reference to director Roman Polanski's own childhood escape
from the Warsaw Ghetto), "The Pianist" paints a vivid portrait of how Szpilman,
a Polish Jew living in Warsaw during Hitler's September 1939 invasion, escaped
deportation to the concentration camps by a combination of assistance from admirers
and, as with most Holocaust survivors, enormous amounts of luck.
The film, more an eyewitness account than a strict dramatization, breathes
new life into a genre that is always difficult to watch the inhumanity and
atrocities of a Nazi regime that randomly pulls Jews, be they men, women, or
children, from lineups and executes them just as randomly. Polanski's film
focuses on the family, the Szpilman family, deftly chronicling their quickly
changing world as the Nazis place humiliating restrictions on what Jewish people
can and cannot do while forcing them to identify themselves with distinguishing
|Directed by: Roman Polanski.|
Written by: Ronald Harwood, Wladyslaw Szpilman.
Cast: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Ed Stoppard.
Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
First transferred from their affluent Warsaw residence to a crumbling-walled
ghetto along with 400,000 other Polish Jews, the Szpilmans find work and food increasingly
hard to come by as Ronald Harwood's well-tuned and intimate screenplay exposes
the family's initial incredulity, defiance and, shortly thereafter, fear at
the hands of the Nazi extermination machine. Like most they are eventually
bundled onto a train bound for a "labor camp."
Walking to the train, Wladyslaw tells his sister, "It's an odd time to say
this, I know, but I wish I knew you better." Wladyslaw never boards the death
train he's pulled from the ranks by a Jewish police sympathizer and slips away
unnoticed but it's the last time he sees any of his family members alive.
"The Pianist" clocks in at two and a half hours, although a lengthy sequence
late in the film (in which Wladyslaw simply hides from his oppressors first
in a German District apartment, then a hospital, then an abandoned attic) could
have been trimmed considerably. While epic in scope, it's the little things
that make "The Pianist" such a compelling film experience: a family cutting
a caramel purchased for 20 zlotys into six equal pieces; a can of pickles carried
as if a life preserver; a young girl holding a birdcage crying for her mother
while rotting corpses and human filth litter the edges of the frame; the true
meaning of gratitude in a world where a genuine "thank you" speaks volumes (Wladyslaw's
sister's response to her brother's comment at the train); and the film's title
itself, a simple label that belies the inherent horrors of that time.
Both Polanski and Adrien Brody ("The Thin Red Line") who portrays Wladyslaw
Szpilman (who died at age 88 in Warsaw) with a respect that can best be described
as reverential received Academy Awards for their work here. Whether the film's
direction or lead performance was the best of 2002 is academic since there's
no debating the passion and the precision that Polanski and Brody bring to the
A more personal but no less poignant film than "Schindler's List" or "Life
is Beautiful" (two similarly focused motion pictures of equal power), "The Pianist"
is a haunting tale of survival that helps us to further understand a horrifying
and unforgettable chapter in our constantly checkered history.
|MARCH 31, 2003|
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