Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Ronald Harwood (screenplay), Wladyslaw Szpilman (book)
Stars: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay
I think it would be fair to say that Roman Polanski is a controversial figure. I’m not here to discuss that horrible ‘incident’ from 1977 that marred his reputation for many or its undoubted vulgarity. But it does require a mention nonetheless, because it’s for that very reason that it took me 16 years following its release to finally sit down and watch The Pianist. I was too young at the time appreciate such a nuanced and emotional story of human suffering and once I discovered the aforementioned incident as an adult, it discouraged me further more.
Regardless of the dodgy past and/or your thoughts on it though, there’s an undeniable fact about the man. He’s an utterly sublime filmmaker with three Academy Award nominations for best director to his name. He just so happened to pick up the win for this film too and it’s not difficult to understand why. The story is very close to his heart for one. Born in Paris to Jewish parents, he moved back to Poland in 1937 and was subsequently embroiled in the murderous tyranny of the Third Reich as they swept across Europe. His mother was sent to and killed at Auschwitz, his father forced away to Mauthausen, leaving the 6 year old Polanski to survive alone from 1943 to 1945 after escaping the Kraków ghetto.
So with that in mind, the emotion and gritty reality he manages to conjure up in the 158 minutes it takes to watch this film, shouldn’t really come as a surprise. He lived and breathed this story at an insanely young age, he was exposed to the horrors of SS and Gestapo brutality. And believe me, there is moments, too many to mention, in this film that will leave you aghast, horrified, angry, upset on the verge of tears, you’ll have your faith in humanity restored and there’s even some time spared for a few chinks of happiness too. If you watch this film from start to finish and can’t feel empathy or don’t become invested in Władysław Szpilman’s journey, then you are not human. It’s impossible for a number of reasons, which I will get into later.
But like I said, this is very much the story of Władysław (Adrien Brody), one of the few survivors from the large Warsaw, Jewish community. The film opens with him playing the piano live on the radio at the very moment the Luftwaffe are bombing the city and we quickly become acquainted with his extended family after a reluctant retreat midst the air raids. They toy with the idea of leaving the city, but find false hope in the declarations of war by the U.K. and France, deciding to stay. This proves to be a fatal misstep, as shortly afterwards the Wermacht seize the city and the Nazi high command begin transporting the Jewish people into two designated ghetto areas.
The opening 45 minutes or so focuses heavily on Szpilman, his family and the Jewish people’s plight within these ghettos, highlighting the starvation, cruelty and mistreatment they faced. This part of the film was absolutely crucial for me in forming an emotional bond with the character that proved to be key in the later stages when he was facing some perilous situations.
Polanski rarely leaves the family, meaning when the violence begins to intensify, and its like a visual representation of that cooking a lobster theory, you feel genuinely concerned for their well being. There’s three distinct moments which stuck with me long after the film ended that take place at this point. Firstly, the old disabled man being thrown out of a top floor window, the young boy being paralysed and beaten to death by a German policeman and that extended Umschlagplatz sequence, where thousands of families sat emaciated and dispirited, knowing what was coming as they awaited a transport to Treblinka and ultimately their deaths.
Władysław manages to escape that fate however, thanks to a rat of man that he’d became acquainted with. Why was he a rat? Well, because he was a Jewish man working in conjunction with the Gestapo and SS, he knew what was awaiting the folks being forced into train carriages and yet still wilfully betrayed them to protect his own skin. Though in fairness, there’s little he could’ve actually have done. Nevertheless, following this, the film latches onto its main protagonist and takes the viewer on a rollercoaster ride through the lowest hells of grief, brutal whippings and cruelty to the exhilarating, short lived high of an escape from the ghetto and the temporary hope it brings, back down to the anguish of failed uprisings and various levels of deprivation, death and destruction.
There’s one constant throughout however that anchors Szpilman to sanity, much like Andy during his darkest moments in the Shawshank Redemption. Music. He is, after all, an extraordinarily gifted pianist. It distracted him from the monotony of life in the ghetto, providing his family with the little food they had; saved him from the concentration camp; kept him sane during long, hidden spells alone in flats provided by radio friends and once again proved to be his ultimate salvation at the end when he stumbled upon his worst nightmare within an abandoned, wrecked house. Thankfully for him, the German officer he met was a kindly, music loving man, disenfranchised by Nazi ideology.
Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), had a reputation, even prior to his meeting with the desperate, bearded figure of Szpilman, for helping Poles, Jews and other figures, including a priest that was part of the Polish resistance. He saved at least half a dozen, no doubt more, condemned or desperate souls from death and provided the first hint of humanity from a German figure in the film. Hell, the entire story until that point was a litany of desensitised inhumanity, and so you could argue this was the first shred of humanity in the entire film. A reminder that not everyone in a German uniform was a barbaric, blood lusty, murderer, brainwashed with a misconstrued, philosophical, claptrap, racial doctrine.
That scene is probably my favourite in the entire film. It’s incredibly touching to see Władysław clutching a tin of food and saying “Ich bin, Ich was… Pianist.” The two men, from polar opposites spheres, being transported from the reality of their surroundings and sharing the common love of art as the sound of Chopin floated melodically into the bitter, cold night.
What can you even say about Adrien Brody’s performance in this film? He wasn’t even the originally intended man for the role, but my god did put in a career defining performance. His transformation from a chirpy, upbeat, young man to a downtrodden, painfully thin looking guy that’s been through a living hell was astonishing. He wasn’t a heroic figure either. Nope, just a regular guy thrust into a horrendous set of ever worsening situations. His journey is unrelenting, at times devastating and nerve shredding, but ultimately a real story of redemption. He’s the singular focal point of more than half of the film, if not more, and he carries it with absolute ease.
The direction from Polanski is magnificent too. The attention to detail is mind blowing, from the creation of incredibly authentic locations to the technically challenging shooting of the Warsaw uprisings from two different elevated flat locations. Even the deliberate choice to have the Polish and Jewish people speak in English and the Germans in their native tongue, the disconnect that created. He lived the reality of the story unfolding and man did he transport you back to that time. I think this is probably the greatest holocaust film ever made, because of the nature of the story and the manner in which it was put to screen. Which brings me onto my final thoughts on the film nicely.
The scale and causalities of WWII were on a level that is frankly impossible wrap your mind around and the industrialised genocide mimicked that larger conflict with eerie symmetry. With the numbers being in the millions, an inconceivable concept, it’s often easy to let the reality of the situation glide over your head, which is why the reduction of this conflict, the genocide too down into a single person perspective in The Pianist is so interesting and intelligent. It conveys the barbarism, brutality and horrors of the Third Reich, the impact it had on every day people on a more relatable and human scale. This is one of its greatest triumphs. It taps into the often forgotten individual human struggle that millions encountered.
This is without doubt one of the best, most gripping and emotive films I’ve watched with a WWII setting. It was a harrowing, riveting experience that was exquisitely adapted from Szpilman’s book. The acting was sensational across the board. Brody was the clear standout, but Kretschmann, a man in no more than a few minutes of actual screen time, made his mark too. I’ve often mentioned my fascination with this era and the two distinct styles of filmmaking it conjures up. Instrospective, character driven stories and wider scale, grander, action filled ones showing the war machine in full flow. Both have their merits, but The Pianist is like a hybrid of the two, it manages to capture the human tragedy and suffering, whilst oddly retaining the grander scale in the periphery.
This is a must watch film, if like me, you haven’t seen it in the many years following it’s release.