review by Jaap Mees
The moment I heard that Roman Polanski was going to make a film about the master pianist Wladyslaw Szpliman’s book Death of a City, I knew it was going to be a great film.
Szpilman, like Polanski, survived the Second World War atrocities in the Krakov Ghetto in Poland. Steven Spielberg asked Polanski earlier to direct Schindler’s List, but that project was to close to his own experience, he knew many people personally.
Some critics and friends of mine have called The Pianist cold, detached and conventional, but I can’t believe they have seen the same film. The Pianist is a sublimely made film, with a very detailed and accurate depiction of life in a Jewish ghetto, extremely well acted by Adrien Brody (Thin Red Line, New York Stories), with help of a superb production designer Allan Starsky and with some of the most moving scenes I have ever seen.
The Pianist proves again what a skilled, perceptive, psychological astute and brave filmmaker Roman Polanski is, because it must have been very hard for him to revisit the locations, look at the archive footage of the brutal and ruthless Nazi killings and refresh painful memories. Both Polanski’s parents were taken to camps, his mother a few months pregnant didn’t survive, his father miraculously came back from the labour camps. Admirably Polanski approaches this film with restraint and almost deals with it in a documentary-like manner; probably the only way to tell a horrendous story like this.
The Pianist shows an ordinary Jewish family with Wladyslaw (Adrien Brody) and his brother, two sisters and parents living a normal life in Warsaw. The first bad sign of the looming tragedy is the obligation for Jews to wear David stars in 1939. Then property and funds are confiscated and food rations limited. Jews are not allowed to use public transport or walk in the parks or sidewalks on the street.
The Jewish Ghetto is eventually walled in and sealed off from the rest of the inhabitants. Polanski shows all these repressive measures in a factual way. There is also the blunt and matter-of-fact razia’s and executions of Jewish people. The dry and very realistic sound of the gunshots are very chilly. There is a horrible scene during a raid on a Jewish family: an old man in a wheelchair is thrown off the balcony. We see all this happen through the haunted eyes of Szpilman.
There are a couple of scenes I will never forget, like when Szpilman comes back after his family is taken away by train to the death camps in Treblinka, he walks crying in the street, completely alone and surrounded by devastating ruins. That scene is essential in the film, because both the character and the audience need to relieve the pain they feel by having witnessed the ruthless atrocities.
At the end of the film Szpilman has to play a piece of Chopin to prove to a German Captain Hosenfeld who discovers him, that he really is a concert pianist. In a freezing room Szpilman plays his heart out and impresses the German, who helps him to survive until the Russian troops liberate Warsaw. When the Nazis retreated in 1945 there were only 20 Jews left alive in Warsaw!!
It’s interesting to see how little music is played during the film, but the music is probably more a metaphor for the beauty and creativity of life, overshadowed and destroyed by the brutality and destructiveness of war.
When Szpilman hides from the Nazis at several addresses and later on in a destroyed hospital, he looks like a haunted bird-like creature, with long hair, a beard and an expression in his eyes which shows all the terror, deep suffering and loneliness he had to go through..
And then there is Johan Sebastian Bach. Towards the end of the film Szpilman hears a woman friend playing the Suite No1 BWV 1007 on her cello. All the indescribable suffering of the whole film is compressed in that incredible moment.
I felt like I was burning through my chair; from now on that beautiful piece of music will for me always be connected to The Pianist.
The Pianist is a sublime film in all senses and thoroughly deserved to win the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival 2002, chaired by David Lynch.