Powerful Oscar-Winning Film About the Holocaust
Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, The Pianist went on to win three Oscars, including Best Director (Roman Polanski), Best Actor (Adrien Brody), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood). The film also won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. I watched this English-language movie at home recently on DVD, and I found it to be one of the most powerful films ever made about the Holocaust.
Movie Based on Real-Life Experiences of Wladyslaw Szpilman
Based on a memoir by a Polish Jew named Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Pianist chronicles his experiences in Warsaw during World War II. The film shows how through a combination of determination, luck, and the help of others, Szpilman managed to beat long odds and survive while hundreds of thousands of other Warsaw Jews perished. I like the unflashy way Brody plays Szpilman as a man who, though not at all heroic, possesses great inner strength. Szpilman is portrayed as often being passive, yet at key moments he makes major decisions that allow him to survive when others who are similarly situated do not.
From Playing Chopin on Radio to Confinement in the Warsaw Ghetto
The Pianist opens in September, 1939, with Szpilman, who's about 27, performing a Chopin piano piece live on Warsaw radio. But the Germans attack during the performance, and it's not long before their soldiers march into the city. The German occupiers systematically depersonalize and humiliate the Warsaw Jews, and by late 1940, Szpilman, his siblings, his parents, and all the other Jews in the city are required to reside within a small walled-in area known as the Warsaw Ghetto. So that his family can eat, Szpilman must take a job playing piano at a Ghetto restaurant catering to Jewish blackmarketeers.
In the summer of 1942, the Germans deport all but the most able-bodied Warsaw Jews to the gas chambers at Treblinka. Szpilman and his family are in a crowd being herded toward cattle cars when he is grabbed by a Jewish policeman and shoved aside. Thus, Szpilman ends up with the able-bodied in the Ghetto, which is converted into a labor camp whose residents serve as slaves in German-owned workshops.
Szpilman Leaves the Ghetto, but Faces New Difficulties
Szpilman decides to leave the Ghetto, and old Polish friends put him in touch with the Resistance, which sets him up in a series of apartments where he must remain holed up. In the spring of 1943, he watches helplessly as the Ghetto Uprising is crushed by the Germans. After the Poles fail in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the Germans destroy much of the city, and Szpilman is left to fend for himself in the rubble. But after a fateful encounter with a German officer, Szpilman manages to hold on until Soviet troops enter Warsaw in early 1945.
Film Appeals More to the Intellect Than to the Emotions
The Pianist doesn't shy away from showing the horrors of the Holocaust, and there are a number of appalling incidents. But what I like best about the film is the restrained, unsentimental way Polanski tells Szpilman's story. The movie eschews easy emotional connections, and I believe Polanski wants us to think more than he wants us to emote. I like it that the film steadfastly refuses to oversimplify the situation: there are good and bad Jews, good and bad Poles, and good and bad Germans. There's a certain amount of randomness to the events that is not comforting, but I think that is realistic. It seems to me Polanski presents a somewhat cynical view of the human condition in the movie, yet somehow against all odds civilization does triumph: Szpilman survives to again thrill music lovers by playing Chopin.
Only One Extra, but It's Worth Watching
The DVD for The Pianist is two-sided, with the feature film on one side of the disc and the bonus materials on the other. No feature commentary track is provided, and in fact, the DVD contains only one extra of any consequence: a 39-minute feature titled "A Story of Survival." I think this feature is well worth watching for two reasons: (1) There are clips of the real-life Wladyslaw Szpilman playing the piano; and (2) Polanski makes a number of interesting remarks, including some about his own Holocaust experiences as a Jewish boy growing up in Krakow.
Special Features of the DVD:
Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1)
English 5.1 Dolby Digital
English 5.1 DTS
French 5.1 Dolby Digital
Spanish Dolby Surround
English Captions for the Hearing Impaired
Feature: A Story of Survival (39 min.)
The Pianist Soundtrack Spot
Cast and Filmmakers