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Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Roman Polanski
Written by:
Ronald Harwood and Wladyslaw Szpilman
Adrien Brody, Frank Finlay, Thomas Kretschmann,
Running time:
141 minutes
Rated R for violence and strong language.
 "...Polanski's strongest and most personally felt movie."
The Pianist is based on the memoirs of Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, who survived the Warsaw ghetto, and it's Roman Polanski's strongest and most personally felt movie. This should not come as a great surprise, since as a child Polanski survived the Kraków ghetto and lost family members in the Holocaust. The real surprise is that the horrors on display in The Pianist are presented matter-of-factly -- which of course makes them seem even more horrific. We are not accustomed to such reserve in a movie about the Holocaust, and especially not in a Polanski movie, where the violence has often been close to Grand Guignol. But in this film he is trying to be devastatingly true to his emotions, and so there is no need for hyperbole. At times, the tension between the unwavering directness of his technique and the anguish that is behind it is almost unbearable. When we see a Nazi soldier casually shoot a Jewish girl in the head for asking an innocent question, or when we see soldiers throw an old man in a wheelchair over a balcony, we are staring into an everyday inferno.

Szpilman, who is played with feral grace by Adrien Brody, survived it: Alone among his family, he managed to escape from the ghetto and hide out in Warsaw until the war's end. We first see him in 1939, not quite 30, playing Chopin during a radio broadcast interrupted by German bombing. At the end, we see him playing the same nocturne in a concert hall that had once been shelled. It's as if his story had come full circle, except that he is crying now and savoring each note the way he savored each morsel of food in captivity. Halfway through the movie, there's a great, brief scene where Szpilman is hidden away in a Warsaw apartment and unable to touch its piano for fear of alerting the neighbors to his presence. The silent agony that ensues is one of the most powerful expressions of spiritual denial I've ever seen in a film. Szpilman's artistry is not sentimentalized; we are never made to feel that he stayed alive because of it. Mostly he survived on luck and gumption. But Polanski recognizes the soul-deep power that music held for Szpilman, and his playing in the end is both an anthem of renewal and a lament. Polanski doesn't sentimentalize the Jews, either. The Jewish police employed by the Germans in the ghetto are shown to be almost as ruthless as their overseers, and some of the underground operatives turn out to be scoundrels. In his memoir, which was published in 1946 under the title Death of a City and soon banned by the Communists, Szpilman wrote that his experience shattered his belief in the "solidarity of the Jews." No doubt some people will regard the divulging of that experience as a betrayal, but Polanski honors the Jews of Warsaw by not romanticizing them; besides, there are many acts of extraordinary generosity and courage in The Pianist. They are just as inexplicable as the depravities.

Although he engages in some minor arms smuggling, Szpilman himself is not especially brave or virtuous. He is not the kind of conventional hero -- or anti-hero, for that matter -- a movie such as this would seem to require. He's a watcher, a reactor, and yet his recessiveness has metaphorical power: Szpilman is like a wraith witnessing the ruin of his beloved city and its people. (The Pianist is, among others things, a eulogy for Warsaw.) When he is finally driven out of his hiding places and wanders the blasted streets, the imagery goes beyond starkness into the surreal .The most remarkable aspect of Szpilman's memoir is that it was written so close to the time of the events described and yet is full of poise and equanimity. There is no ache for revenge in his book, and there is none in Polanski's film, either. Szpilman lived out his days in Poland as a celebrated pianist and composer of popular songs and children's music, dying in 2000. Polanski, whose notorious and harrowing life is well known, had not, until this movie, filmed in Poland in 40 years. And yet these two men, who might appear from their lives and works to be temperamentally unalike, share distaste for special pleading or bathos. In The Pianist, suffering is seen with such clarity that its relief becomes a balm of the greatest magnitude. It's the relief we get when Szpilman plays the piano again, or merely makes it through another day. In moments like these, we are confronted with the significance, the momentousness, of the ordinary.

THE PIANIST © 2002 Miramax Films
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.



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