Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who played piano for the Warsaw state radio
station, lost his entire family in the holocaust but managed to survive it.
He recounted his harrowing experiences in an autobiography, "Death of a City",
published in 1946.
Roman Polanski, whose best directorial effort in the last 10 years was,
arguably, "The Ninth Gate"
(1999), has wanted to embrace the subject of the holocaust despite his career
predilection for the macabre. This side step in style and taste might well
have been a long growing seed within him, since he, himself, is a survivor of
the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. He found his inspiration and source material
in Szpilman's book.
While it adds little to the general literature about the holocaust, the Nazis
and the atrocities that set new depths to man's inhumanity, the story,
besides its immediacy as a true story, puts us in the footsteps of one who is
an accomplished concert pianist, adding a layer of cultural interest and
singularity to the indiscriminate decimation of a population.
Szpilman (Adrien Brody) was playing piano in the station studio when the
Luftwaffe attacked in September, 1939, the start of the occupation of Poland
and the last music heard over the state airwaves. Following that cessation
of radio classics, he meets Dorota, a fan of his music who lights up the
streets with her classic beauty.
From that moment the life of any jew in a conquered city is a gradual
stripping away of rights, starting with the requirement to wear the star of
David on their sleeve to identify themselves as second class citizens, to
their deportation or relocation to the death camps. Included in this is the
loss of employment and possessions, the scrambling for scraps of food and
water and worse degradation. We see this process as Szpilman and his family
are affected along with all the other ghettoized jews.
A friend offers the two brothers jobs with the Jewish Police -- one who herds
and punishes the others on behalf of the Nazi, thereby currying some favor
and influence. It's just not something they could do and they turn down the
offer. They do, however, profit by the contact with this man, first by his
releasing Henryk Szpilman (Ed Stoppard), Wladyslaw's headstrong brother, from
imprisonment and, probably, disappearance, then by pulling Wladyslaw -- our
pianist -- out of a line onto a prison camp-destined rail car. Though his
entire family was put on that rail car, and subsequently lost, this is the
key moment that allowed him to elude capture. It is not, however, the last
threat to his life and limb.
If not for the mortal danger he was in, his exploits to stay hidden and,
somehow, fed, could be considered an adventure. His ultimate survival accrues
to the credit of a string of sympathetic Poles, the jewish underground and,
finally, on the eve of the Russian "liberation" of the destroyed city, one
completely unexpected music lover.
Adrien Brody ("The Affair of the Necklace", "Liberty Heights"), a 26-year old
New York actor of Hungarian extraction, was a thoroughly appropriate choice
for Szpilman, with his very long fingers that seem convincingly at home over
the piano keys, skillfully bringing alive some wonderfully dynamic pieces
from the classical piano repertoire. Although he studied the Polish
classical method of the period, the solo piano is credited to Janusz
Olejniczak. Brody is enough of a pianist, however, to convince most of us
that he's doing the actual playing, across a full range of tempi in close
shots, many of which are clearly him at the keyboard.
Most luminous in her role as a sensitive Polish woman who is more than a
little impressed by the pianist's talent is Emilia Fox ("David Copperfield",
1999) as Dorota. Her deep feelings for Spzilman, for the man as well as for
the talent, is well expressed by a genuine quality of attraction turning into
concern for his life and destiny. Her acting pedigree is in evidence as is
some of the facial features of her father, actor Edward Fox. This is an
actress we want to see much more of.
There is little here that adds to historical knowledge or to the profile of
the Nazi. It's fair to say that we've seen it so many times that the
subject of the holocaust has become a film genre. The elements that
justify this addition to that growing library is the uniqueness of a gifted
artist in the midst of the brutality and the seriousness with which Polanski
applies his unique genius to the telling of it.
In commiting totally to a coldly literal, accurate tale he, perhaps, widens
and deepens the scope of his vision and his relevance in a modern film making
context, though it must be said that "The Pianist" doesn't accomplish the
more emotionally charged and complex significances of "Schindler's List."
This may, in part, derive from the fact that it's written by the subject, and
the fore-knowledge of his survival does not work into a strong identification
and fear for his ultimate destiny.
It must also be said that Polanski demonstrates his devotion to his material
by finding a way to play the classical compositions almost in their entirety
rather than as fragments, stressing the importance of the instrument as much
to the story as to the man.
The original soundtrack music is by Wojciech Kilar. Other outstanding
musical choices are by Chopin (Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23), Mozart,
Bach, and the film's finale by Chopin ("Grand Polonaise Brilliante, Opus
22"). Julie Adams was the dialect coach for Mr. Brody.
~~ Jules Brenner