The Pianist (2002) / Drama-War

MPAA Rated: R for violence and brief strong language
Running time: 150 min.

Cast: Adrien Brody, Frank Finlay, Emilia Fox, Maureen Lipman, Ed Stoppard
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Ronald Harwood (based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman)

Review published December 16, 2002

Perhaps this may be esteemed director Roman Polanski's (The Ninth Gate, Death and the Maiden) most personal work to date, even if it is about someone else.  Polanski himself was in Warsaw during the time of the Nazi occupation, and saw first-hand many of the atrocities that occurred during those years, including seeing his parents sent to a concentration camp where his mother eventually died.  Luckily, he escaped and survived on his own, living from family to family, until ultimately reunited with his liberated father in 1945.

Like Polanski, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Brody, The Village) also survived on the streets of Warsaw.  The Pianist adapts Szpilman's autobiographical book, telling the tale of how he managed to survive the seemingly insurmountable odds using his own need for survival and with the help of many other good people along the way. 

Although the backdrop of the film is World War II, and more specifically, the holocaust, The Pianist is more of a tale of survival than about the horrific nature of the Nazi regime.  There is no need for a propaganda approach when witnessing such heinous acts depicted in realistic fashion right before your eyes.  No need for dramatic music, slow motion deaths, or portrayals of absolute good and evil.  It's a truthful film told from a true-to-life survivor, and even though it's a film about events 50 years ago, it feels as real as if you are peeking out of Szpilman's window along with him.

This is Polanski's finest film since the 70s, a real return to form that should once again put him on the list of the best directors still working today.  Another director might have been motivated to underscore every dramatic scene with the lovely music that Szpilman had been known to play, but Polanski knows that silence is just as effective as any music, and he uses the absence of it to full advantage.  When we hear Szpilman play again, the effect pays off beautifully, as we had forgotten what it sounded like and what it meant to him to be a pianist almost as much as he did during that time. 

The acting is top-notch, with Adrien Brody putting forward an Oscar-worthy performance as Szpilman.  He evokes every bit of the sadness, madness and outrage necessary in bringing Szpilman to life.  I cannot say how accurate the portrayal is to the reality, but that does not diminish the quality performance that it is. 

The Pianist should please those who enjoy survival tales, honest portrayals of the holocaust, great dramas, and especially fans of Polanski.  Although the material has been covered before, it rarely has been done better.  It's a worthy companion piece to Schindler's List, proving that there are many heroic stories still left to be told about one of the darkest times in human history.  Easily one of the best films of 2002.

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo