The Pianist Movie Review

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Roman Polanski is said to have turned down the opportunity to direct Schindler's List because he felt it would be too painful. Himself a survivor of the Holocaust, Polanski's connection to the Krakow ghetto made the story all too personal. But with the release of The Pianist, it seems the director has finally come to terms with his pain.

Set amidst the ruins of another infamous ghetto -- Warsaw's Jewish district -- The Pianist recounts the horrors that Polanski could not face a decade ago. The movie tells the true story of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman's escape from Nazi persecution and his subsequent struggle to survive. Unlike other mainstream Holocaust movies, though, this one doesn't try to portray heroism and selflessness as much as it does the actual process of surviving. In other words, it is about the constant act of searching -- for food, for water, for a new place to hide, and for a way out.

To be sure, the result of such a perspective is quite powerful because it requires the movie to concentrate on the loneliness and the silence that Szpilman must have felt during his ordeal. In one particular scene, Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) climbs over the ghetto wall and the camera rises ever so slowly to reveal a city reduced to nothing but rubble and the hollowed out carcasses of buildings. Although shot on color film, the scene is like a black and white still. Clearly, there's nothing left in the city to add color or motion to this gray landscape. The effect is both ghastly and beautiful, and perhaps one of the most haunting moments in cinematography I've seen in years.

There is a downside to this, though. By focusing on the process, Polanski neglects the person. He overlooks the emotional response that Szpilman has to his surroundings. Indeed, this is the case right from the start. When Szpilman is shown playing the piano despite a bombing raid, he's presented as being stoically resigned to the war. In a later scene, he has to step over bodies on the sidewalk just to get home, but even this doesn't seem to have any affect on him, other than to pose an obstacle in the road. Unfortunately, this strange sense of detachment keeps The Pianist from having the emotional impact it should.

Of course, some fans will argue that detachment is exactly what this character must be feeling amidst such atrocities. But if that's the case, we should at least see the character make that initial change from passion to stoicism. And at the end of the movie, we should see him gradually find his way back to being an emotive person, or we should feel sad that he's been forever changed by his experience. Instead, Polanski leaves us with a number of unanswered questions. What about his family? What about religion? What about the Poles who helped him along the way? The movie would have us believe that he never gives another thought to these things once he's on the run.

Despite this flaw, The Pianist still manages to be a fairly compelling film. For one, it is unashamed to approach the subject of "bad Poles" -- the ones who actively helped the Nazis. Also, the movie's treatment of violence is appropriately less Hollywood than Schindler's List. For example, when an SS guard runs out of bullets, we pray that the old man he's about to execute will be spared. In Schindler, he is. In The Pianist, the guard takes his time reloading and then fires again. All in all, these things help make The Pianist one of the most straightforward views of survival that we've seen in this genre. It's not for everyone, but it is worth seeing.

Roman Polanski tells his own version of The Pianist's story on the film's DVD, among other extras included.

Here's to the bread.

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The Pianist Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 2002


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