Movie Review – The Pianist (2002)
by NIR SHALEV
Roman Polanski was orphaned at a young age during the Nazi invasion of Poland. He was separated from his family for the rest of his life and it greatly shows simply because this film and Polanski’s Oliver Twist (2005) exist. Both films focus on the theme of dealing with adversity during hard times and also showcase that even when most people are against you, be it because of prejudice or racism, there’s always someone around the corner who’s willing to help.
Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a pianist; he greatly admires Frederic Chopin and as the film opens we see Szpilman playing a piece for the radio audience. Explosions are heard in the streets but Szpilman is unfazed. It isn’t until the front window explodes, blowing glass everywhere that he and the program producer evacuate the premises. At home, Szpilman’s family is reading the newspapers and is astonished at what they read: Jews must wear a white band with a blue Star of David embroidered on it at all times. The notion is crazy and a grand prejudice is apparent across the population of the city of Warsaw. Soon enough, pubs, parks, and other public properties are disallowing Jews from entering them. Audiences watching this film notice that what Polanski shows us is a street level, up front and honest portrayal of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw through the point of view of a particular family. We witness as their riches are taken away, followed by their dignity as Jews.
After the city has put up with the Nazi regime for three years, a Jewish Zone is eventually quartered off and within months, all of the Jewish citizens are rounded up and deported to labor camps. A twist of fate, in the form of a family friend who happens to assist the Nazi party helps Szpilman to evade the deportation and we follow Szpilman as he walks through the empty city streets crying, knowing very well that he’ll never see his family again.
From that moment on and throughout the following couple of years, Szpilman bumps into a few people that recognize him and decide to help. They all are unsympathetic to the Nazi persecution of the Jews and provide him with safe harbor whenever possible. He moves from one part of the city to another, always living in solitude and quietly in another’s vacant flat, his beard growing longer, his complexion becoming paler.
There is one scene in the film, one of many that always get to me and it’s when Szpilman is given another flat to live in. He is told that he cannot make any noise because it’s in a Nazi neighborhood and because it’s known to be vacant. As the door is closed and locked behind him he scouts the apartment and notices a dusty piano. Up until this moment he hadn’t played a piano in almost three years and as he sits down before it, he removes the key guard and plays beautiful music in his head as his fingers float gracefully above the keys.
Roman Polanski won the Oscar for Best Director and Adrien Brody won for Best Actor for The Pianist. Also, Ronald Harwood won for adapting the novel to the screen. One Oscar that was overlooked is for the film’s gorgeous and devastating cinematography. The color palette of the film is a mixture of gray and brown; the costumes and clothing are mostly in fashionable browns and the streets, people’s complexions, scenery, and dust are in gray.
Two of the most memorable scenes in the film contain great cinematography and great writing. The first one has Szpilman locked in an apartment, while outside of it a tank takes aim at the building. It fires a couple of shells, blowing up the apartment next to Szpilman’s and deafening him and the audience. He crosses over to the adjoining apartment, walks down the stairs, and out to the back street. He climbs over a small wall and begins to walk down a street that contains hundreds of war-torn houses, all destroyed. The visual destruction and the power of the devastation are thunderous in their beauty and grotesqueness equally.
The other memorable scene follows the aforementioned one and it showcases Szpilman squatting in a war torn building. When he finds a can of watermelon juice he is then found by a Nazi, one Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. The captain inquires what Szpilman is doing in the building and also finds out that he used to be a pianist. He leads him to another room, shows him a grand piano, and asks him to play something. After more than three years of not having played any music, the piece that we and the Captain hear is magnificent. The love of music pours out of Szpilman’s heart and into his fingers and it causes anyone watching, including the Captain to cry.
This is a beautiful film that is not superfluous in terms of reminding the world about that terrible tragedy that took place between 1939 and 1945. It tells the story of man who managed to survive because a handful of beautiful human beings had helped him to survive. He was sheltered, looked after, clothed, and fed and it’s all simply because there is good in most of us and that good most usually triumphs over evil. And those that hold great power need to be aware that great good can be done when one’s heart is in the right place.
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This review was published in conjunction with the Commentary Track “Best of the 2000s” series.