What I expected from The Pianist when I saw the film advertised was a sort of true life Playing for Time in which the pianist of the title actually performs for the Nazi captors in order to prove his worth and to survive the Holocaust to tell the tale. This isn't the case, and in fact, there is nothing derivative about this film. It is a true story actually told by the man who survived the tragedies himself in his published documentary account of the same name. The tale is emotional, bleak, beautiful and funny all floating above the frightening floor-board rumble of war that can't be escaped (watch this space for the Book Review... you know... when I read it). As the book was written in such a first-person epistolary format there are a few extrapolations and dialogue additions that Polanski admits to. It is, however, the accuracy that Polanski simply demanded here. Why? Because this film so closely matches the personal events of Polanski's survival (no jokes about his legal troubles, please). Polanski was separated from his parents during World War II and was eventually, after the war and the Jewish camps reunited with his Father (who only held on to see Roman again). It's this personal story that fuels the pathos seen on the screen almost to the extent that the real-life Szpilman drama does. The screenplay itself (by Ronald Harwood) was excellent enough in fact to win a 2002 Oscar for best Screenplay!
Well, the big spoiler here is that you know Szpilman lived to publish his book (and to play piano for the common and the royal alike), but aside from that and the setting I've offered you, I don't want to hand out any real recap. The movie is exciting and action packed, but it's mostly a journey of the emotions. Not at all sappy like a trick-filled tear-jerker, but an actual dramatic and heart wrenching film that will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and hopefully, it will make you never forget. (To those of you who wish to maintain that the Holocaust did not happen, that is your right but I do not agree. Logic and history will not allow me to ever dismiss this truth. Email any complaints you have on that, and I will entertain them. Truth is truth, and yes, I do have the research to back that up!)
The attention to detail in this film is exacting. From quotations of Shylock from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice to the period clothes, tools and equipment, to the very crumbled skyline of old Warsaw, Polanski covered it all in his fine gossamer... never touching or fiddling with the accuracies like a self-congratulatory director, but allowing for subtlety to show through the backdrop. Similarly it's the faces of the people in the film that show their dignity and strength even at the mouth of a war motivated primarily by racism against them. The acting is universally impeccable, from Adrien Brody as Szpilman to the family and friends played by Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Julia Rayner, Jessica Kate Meyer and Michal Zebrowski who show the old life Szpilman lost better than anything or anyone else could (some are heroes, some disappointments, all are depicted well). And finally to Captain Wilm Hosenfeld played by Thomas Kretschmann who has to be seen to be truly understood.
Kretschmann speaks only German in this film and supplies perhaps the most tangible manifestation of Szpilman's concept of fear. However, Hosenfeld is so much deeper than that, showing a great range of acting and emotion that he transcends the fear and provides hope, and grace while proving that there just might be good and bad in the most unlikely places. Yeah, usually you overturn a rock and you find a snake... but once in a while... just occasionally you turn one over and you find gold.
The key to the film though is Brody who fully deserved the Oscar he won for portraying Szpilman. Brody epitomizes what this film is all about with his acting. He can be very funny, but primarily he is the sympathetic subject of horrors, and he just wants to survive. He even went so far as to drop large amounts of weight and to live despondently to get into the character of the declining Szpilman. It's his range that grabs you though, best typified by his face as seen while he's playing the Piano. It's completely moving to show the passion he felt and the passion that Szpilman himself must have felt at touching the keys and making beauty come out of them. The ugliness of Szpilman's life is captured here too from the false hopes of an allied rescue to the one scene during which it appears that he has lost it all and his shoulders and face simply dissolve into the pain of defeat. While it is hard not to support and root for Szpilman in his devolving (and evolving) life, but The Pianist never allows you to forget that Szpilman is a person, flawed and imperfect, who is centered in his own humanity. He's not perfect, but the showing of Szpilman as a real human being and not a sanitized and polished perfect victim actually works in favor of his pathos. You get the feeling that he is so much like us that his pain can almost be tasted. Brody and Polanski capture it all, and the warts-and-all imperfection of Szpilman the character is a tribute not just to the film makers but to Szpilman the man, who wrote himself as he apparently was, not in an idealized heroic form.
The film has a bit of a tendency to be somewhat disjointed and unfocused in its storytelling from time to time. This is by no means a criticism because it works so well. Just about all of the action is taken in through the eyes of Szpilman, and there are almost no scenes whatsoever without Brody in frame. This causes confusion more than once. A sound is heard off screen where Szpilman cannot see, so we don't see. A fight breaks out in the street... who is fighting? We only know what Szpilman is doing. The Allies march on Warsaw and there is cannon and machine gun fire between two sides... which side is which? We don't know because Szpilman sees this only through his window and from an inconvenient angle. This works so well though by putting us into the confusion that Szpilman must have felt. There is no omniscience to the narrator or to the audience. Szpilman tells the story, so we know only what he knows. This makes him that much more our sympathetic ally against the horrors, and our caretaker of the beauty that he saved with him. It takes a team like the Oscar-winning cast and crew to make all this work, and thank God it does.
Four and one half stars for The Pianist. It is a wonderful companion piece to Szpilman's memoirs and a beautiful (and frightening) tribute to the life of a great man and a beautiful musician. You might like it if you're in to beautiful movies with impeccable acting and can stomach the death and carnage of war (specifically this war). You might want to avoid it if you have problems taking such heavy emotion or the frank depictions of death and sickness and most of all racism and injustice pollute your soul. It's not as stark and graphic as Schindler's List got to be at times, but it does come pretty close. It's hard to watch but it should be watched. It's an all around well crafted cinematic gem.
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