The Pianist  (2002)


Ebert:1/2 Rolling Stone: TV Guide:

Warning, minor plot points revealed!

Roman Polanski, speaking to his own experiences as a Holocaust survivor, has said that the death of his mother in the gas chambers remains so hurtful that only his own death will bring closure.  Steven Spielberg wanted him to direct Schindler's List but he refused.  With The Pianist, Polanski has made an equally excellent film that closer reflects his own experiences.

The film tells the autobiographical account of Holocaust victim and master pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman.  His prosperous family is forced out of their home into what became the walled-in Warsaw Ghetto.  They are then put on a train and sent to the death camps, never to return.  Szpilman, however, is pulled out of line at the last minute by a friend (who became one of the Jewish ghetto police) and given a chance to run.  He does run, and with amazing good fortune and the kindness of old non-Jewish friends and  strangers he escapes capture and death for the duration of the war.  

As with most World War II films of the last 10 years, the violence is horrific, graphic and abundant.  Even though I was expecting it, the savagery of the Nazi's is not something you ever get used to seeing.  After Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan I thought I was prepared.  I was not.  I think it's the randomness of the murdering that is so frightening.  People are constantly being shot unexpectedly and for no reason.  Because of this, every war film with Nazi's in it takes on a pre-existing and unavoidable level of suspense.  Polanski obviously recognizes this and uses it as the primary momentum of the film.  As we watch Szpilman's daily routine, in and then out of the Ghetto, we are never truly able to take a breath or relax.  Every moment of his life is excruciatingly tense as is nearly all 150 minutes of this film.

Adrien Brody is fantastic as Szpilman.  The already slight actor goes through a horrible decline in health as the film progresses.  Every twitch and jitter that is inherent to Szpilman's new life situation is admirably played by Brody.  I agree that this is an Oscar caliber performance, but I do not think it will top Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York

The special effects in the film are minimal but there are a few panoramic wide angle shots of the Warsaw Ghetto that probably could not have been done without digital backgrounds.  And the gun-shot gore and splatter has that Saving Private Ryan quality of realism to it.  

The Pianist is a really great movie.  Best picture of 2002?  No.  Exceptional World War II Nazi Holocaust film...Absolutely.