The Pianist (2002)

Director:  Roman Polanski
Cast:  Adrien BrodyThomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay
Plot:  A Polish Jewish musician struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of World War II.

Genre:  Biography / Drama / War

Awards:  Won Palme d'Or (Cannes). Won 3 Oscars - Best Director, Leading Actor, Adapted Screenplay.  Nom. for 4 Oscars - Best Picture, Cinematography, Film Editing, Costume Design.
Runtime:  150min
Rating:  PG for violence and brief strong language.


“2,000 and my advice is to take it. What will you do when you're hungry? Eat the piano?”

Winning three Oscars including Best Director and the top prize at CannesThe Pianist is Roman Polanski’s lifelong dream come true.  Polanski shot to international stardom with Knife in the Water in 1962, a film about sexual rivalry.  He would revisit the theme of sex in his next few films such as Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966).  His best known work remains to be the incomparable Chinatown (1974) one of the few truly defining films of '70s American cinema.

The Pianist somehow feels like an anomaly in Polanski’s body of work.  It is a historical drama about Nazi persecution in WWII Poland.  Yet it is undoubtedly his most personal film to date.  A Jew himself, Polanski is born of Polish parents who were sent to concentration camp.  His maturity in handling a tough subject matter like the Holocaust can be observed by the manner in which he directed the film.

Unlike Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Polanski has shot The Pianist in full color.  The Oscar-nominated cinematography by Pawel Edelman (Ray, 2004; Oliver Twist, 2005) is stunning.  The elegant architecture of Warsaw radiates in many scenes, and the texture of every frame is so smooth that the film seems like a seamless storyboard of expertly-directed and edited sequences one after another, though there are some pacing problems that mar the viewing experience.

There is one hauntingly exquisite scene towards the end of the film showing Adrien Brody’s character, Szpilman, climbing over a wall.  As he makes it to the other side, the camera elevates slowly from behind the wall to reveal a desolate piece of snow-covered land with rows of wrecked houses either side of a wide, gaping path.  This scene represents the culmination of the impressive cinematographic vision of both Polanski and Edelman for The Pianist.

Adrien Brody cuts a display of sympathy.  One of the most apt casting decisions in recent years, Brody embodies not so much the physicality of the Jews, but rather a figure of restrained calmness that typifies Jews of that time.  Knowing the fate of his race under the brutal stranglehold of Hitler, Szpilman somewhat escapes certain death, riding on luck most of the time, and the support of close ‘underground’ allies.

Unlike Schindler’s ListThe Pianist only elicits muted emotional responses from the audience.  While harrowing at times, Polanski’s film lacks the power and emotional depth that made Spielberg’s black-and-white masterpiece one of the greatest films of all-time.  Another flaw of The Pianist lies in the second half during scenes of Szpilman hiding out alone in one apartment after another in a German-occupied region.  During this time, the film moves the slowest, appearing lackluster and flat, somewhat bereft of hope that the remainder of the film might return to its compelling first half.

Nevertheless, The Pianist is a realistic account of one of the darkest periods of humanity through the melancholic eyes of Adrien Brody’s Szpilman, one of Poland’s most well-known musicians.  The film signifies a return to form for Polanski who had somewhat faded away in the late '80s.  He is past his prime, but once in a while, he is still capable of jolting fans of cinema awake with beautiful motion pictures like this.


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