The Pianist
directed by Roman Polanski
(Focus, 2002)

For years, Roman Polanski has made films showing us the world through the eyes of psychologically tortured souls, going so far as to play one himself in The Tenant. In his latest release, however, the noted European director makes a 180; The Pianist looks at a world gone stark raving mad from the perspective of a very sane man, perhaps the sanest character ever to appear in a Polanski film.

The contrast is startling: gone are the flashbacks, the complicated storylines, the cutaways to psychotic hallucinations. The Pianist is straightforward storytelling at it simplest, and its very best.

By now, everyone who lives within a hundred miles of a radio, TV or newspaper knows the plot. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish concert pianist, somehow manages to survive World War II, despite his forced relocation to the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw and a labor camp.

But what you don't know, unless you read Szpilman's book or see Polanski's movie, is just how harrowing that experience is, or just how many times Szpilman almost became just one more Holocaust statistic.

The story begins, appropriately enough, with Szpilman performing a piano concert on Warsaw radio the day the Nazis attacked. The fact that Szpilman continues to play even after the opening blast rocks the studio should tell you all you need to know about his priorities.

It continues with his retreat to his family, who continue to live on false hope even after they're sent to the newly created Warsaw ghetto where they are forced to labor for the Germans.

How Szpilman narrowly escapes their fate, and how he survives the next two years in occupied Poland -- going AWOL from his labor camp, hiding out in a series of secret apartments, taking shelter in an abandoned hospital and a home in a bombed-out neighborhood -- are the "what" of The Pianist. Just as important is the "how" -- how Polanski makes you jump every time the sound of a rifle shot echoes down the street outside the Szpilmans' ghetto apartment; how the hair rises on the back of your neck when you hear voices in the hallways outside Szpilman's hiding places; how Szpilman's face lights up when he discovers a piano in one of the apartments -- he's overjoyed just to be able to adjust the height of the stool (playing -- which would make noise -- is out of the question).

Add to that the incessant stream of images detailing man's inhumanity to man, woman and child and you have what would be a powerful film even without Brody's Oscar-winning performance, which is so understated that it takes some time to adjust to. Indeed, the early scenes are played more as an ensemble piece than a star vehicle; it's only in the last half hour that Brody really begins to stand out, partly because almost everything around him has been killed or destroyed.

On top of this, you have the perfect look for the subject matter -- gray-green ghettos, pale blue streets beset by ever-growing shadows -- and dialogue that's kept to a minimum, which explains but rarely preaches.

"Sometimes I'm still not sure which side of the wall I'm on," Szpilman tells a labor camp comrade.

It's clear which side Polanski is on -- and that The Pianist deserved every award it won, and probably a whole bunch more.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 7 February 2004

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