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11 January 2006

The Pianist (2002)

Adrien Brody (Wladyslaw Szpilman), Thomas Kretschmann (Wilm Hosenfeld), and Emilia Fox (Dorota)

Directed by Roman Polanski (Death and the Maiden)

Summary: The true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman who was known as the most accomplished pianist in Poland, if not Europe. At the outbreak of WWII, Szpilman became subject to anti-Jewish laws imposed by the conquering Germans. Szpilman watches as his world transforms from concert halls to the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw. Deciding to escape, Szpilman goes into hiding as a Jewish refugee where he is witness to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. His story of survival was unlikely and fortunate, especially when he meets a sympathetic Nazi officer mere weeks before the Soviet arrival in Warsaw.

With Pacze Moj and his recent review of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in mind, I will start this review with a discussion of geography. No scenes are based outside of Warsaw. While Szpilman toured extensively before the war, those incidents are merely discussed. The world of The Pianist is Warsaw, and as the film progresses, that world becomes smaller and smaller. Szpilman and his family are first forbidden to leave the city, and then they are moved to the Jewish ghetto. The citizens of the ghetto are starved, deported and exterminated until a only the smaller of the two ghettos is required.

When Szpilman goes into hiding, he does so in a cramped crawl space, single-room flats, in an attic, in an abandoned hospital, and behind a bookcase. The larger extent of WWII is irrelevant. The viewer's perspective of the war shrinks along with his. Only upon seeing one of the final panoramas of destruction, in which I recognized a statue from the pre-war scenes, did I realize the extent of this claustrophobic journey. Polanski did not take us to some distant place where all buildings are destroyed (85% of Warsaw was razed) and no one walks the streets; this was the same city where Szpilman once played for genteel crowds and broadcast his music on the radio. My realization that the film never took us beyond the city of Warsaw was a shocking one because the extent of the changes I had witnessed was so great.

In science class as a child, I learned that living creatures require only three things for survival: food, water, and shelter. Throughout his nearly six-year ordeal, Szpilman endures the most meager of all three. But what that class did not factor was the importance of interaction to more advanced species, particularly humans. Szpilman was trapped for weeks and months at a time with only silence, fear and hunger as his companions. To quiet the encroaching madness, he played piano constantly - in his mind. His fingers incessantly tapped invisible keys, driving away thoughts of his lost family, his former life, and his bleak future. He had very little by way of human interaction, but his music literally sustained him as much as any pathetic scraps of food he managed to find.

To reflect this remarkable change, from that of a healthy, respected man to a wretched, wasted thing, Brody dieted to drop from 161 lbs (73kg) to 130 lbs (59kg). He looked like his face had collapsed in on itself, and I could almost see every manner of disease and physical ailment that befalls men subject to such conditions. The role, and the hype about how he prepared for it, reminded me of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Both endured the same extreme manner physical transformations, and more importantly, they both portrayed characters of very few words. As human interaction dwindled and disappeared, Szpilman's rather taciturn and quiet personality became one of a man entirely inhabiting yet another, smaller world - that within his own mind. Words were long gone.

Brody projected the appearance of inhabiting this world all too successfully, to the point where his portrayal of one of Szpilman's post-war concerts was somewhat of a shock. Everything, physically speaking, was restored. His clothes, his health, his straight and dignified bearing, his skill at the piano - not a hair was out of place. Outwardly, he cut the same figure as his pre-war self, but I can only imagine the painful, decades-long struggle Szpilman must have suffered to regain some semblance of peace within himself.

The actors portraying Szpilman's grown siblings and his parents were all marvelous, creating a gentle, funny, desperate, tight family organism. I liked the touches of sibling bickering that remained inevitably intact even into adulthood. However, I felt their loss from the film more greatly than Brody portrayed the loss Szpilman must have experienced. Perhaps the intention was to show Szpilman's single focus on survival after the murder of his family, but the brief scene of Brody crying seemed inadequate.

East German-born Thomas Kretschmann had a brief role as the Nazi officer who aids in Szpilman's survival, but his presence on screen was one of authority, intelligence, and unexpected refinement and sympathy. Too bad he seems stuck in the realm of shoot 'em-ups and war films. And Emilia Fox bugged me for hours as I tried to place where I had seen her before. Voilà! She played Mr. Darcy's younger sister in "Pride and Prejudice." Thanks, IMDB.

Overall, this is a harrowing film of desperation and the limits of human endurance. Brody deserved his best actor win, especially considering his lack of competition that year. I preferred Death and the Maiden and Frantic, but this was a solidly-directed film and a quality directorial win for Polanski. And while I still cannot call Brody entirely attractive, his personal warmth and openness fueled this film's most intimate explorations of survival and inner passion.

Anonymous Pacze Moj said...

Interesting points about the concentration of the film in Warsaw, and then of Szpilman's cramped and tight hiding spots. I haven't seen The Pianist since 2002, but I remember that closed atmosphere.

Just to play with words, it's as if his physical concentration in Warsaw and then in individual homes, and single floors coincides with his mental concentration -- demonstrated, like you say, by the "air piano". And, if I remember the ending, both concentrations culminate in a real piano performance that gets him both noticed by the Nazi officer, and saves his life.

Blogger Mircalla said...

“And, if I remember the ending, both concentrations culminate in a real piano performance that gets him both noticed by the Nazi officer, and saves his life.”

That’s correct.

I forgot to add this film to the list of Xmas DVDs watched during this past holiday. Steve found it amongst my dad's collection and started watching it. I was reluctant to see another film about holocaust and war realistically chronicled, although I highly appreciate that we are talking of an Oscar winning film by a celebrated director who finally found the nerves to express his personal experience in art.*

Don’t misread me, I am generally very sensitive to this period of history having lived in Berlin for a while and having had a granddad who went to war and died soon after. I also visited a concentration camp in Berlin which was really touching and I am planning with my dad to go to Auschwitz at some point. To name just a few, I found *Schindler’s List* very emotional when I watched it with my dad back in ’93, and the images from *Saving Private Ryan* was very shocking at the time (before seeing the Iraq carnage on television!). The other day I casually watched the *Empire of the Sun* (like the previous two, directed by Spielberg) and was interested in seeing the war atrocities witnessed from a different perspective (the individualistic perspective of a child) and from another location (Japan, or better the English people in Japan).**

But I simply wasn’t feeling like to watch the story of another victim of this mad period of history brutally portrayed. I usually prefer the fable style of films such as *Train de Vie* and *Jackob the Liar*, emotional as much but filtered by the fascination of art communicating a more universal and timeless message.

However, towards the second half of the *Pianist*, I suddenly stopped reading my magazine. My attention was grasped by the scenes of Warsaw and I kept watching it with deep attention and anxiety to the end. I agree with Lindsey and Pacze Moj: it was a solidly directed film communicating strong claustrophobic sensations about the 'universal' human suffering in extreme situations and its capacity of survival (physical and mental).

*BTW, I saw Polanski in Venice on a gondola in 90something (it was during the Venice film festival and I was there on holiday with my parents). ;o )

**As Steve pointed out, it would be interesting to see also how Japanese were regarded in England and America at the time…

Blogger Reckless Monkey said...

I, for want of a better word, enjoyed the film, but I always have trouble watching Polanski film knowing his past.

Blogger Mircalla said...

I know, but he admitted his error and paid for it...

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

A version of how the Japanese were treated and regarded in America can be found in Come See the Paradise, starring Dennis Quaid as a man who marries a nisei woman (played by Tamlyn Tomita). Paradise Road, starring Glenn Close, is about allied women interred by the Japanese in Sumatra. The former is more melodramatic, but it is just about the only film I can recall about Japanese internment in the US. The latter is excellent and has a fantastic cast.

Others might include Bridge Over River Kwai, The Thin Red Line (although that was a long, mostly tedious viewing - gorgeous, but tedious), and possibly Snow Falling on Cedars (another about the Japanese in America, but one I have not seen).


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