Cinema Signal:

Read these books:
The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945 by Wladyslaw Szpilman (retitled)

Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust by Richard Rhodes

. "The Pianist"

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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Original Recordings of Wladyslaw Szpilman

The Soundtrack album


Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Very well written, Insightful
I agree with the review
Rating: 10
Hi - the Pianist is exceptional, the site is great
                                                      ~~ Suzanne 
                            -   -   -   -
Very well written
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review
Rating: 7
Although touched upon, the fact that music saved this man's life emotionally & literally was not stressed enough in the movie. There was not nearly enough piano music in the soundtrack....
                                                      ~~ Nancy M. 
                            -   -   -   -
Well Written
I'll get my local newspaper to hire this reviewer
Rating: 9
I thought the review was very well written and contained a lot of detail. However, I believe that there should be some warning that viewers must be extremely strong-willed to see this movie... I will now play my music much more passionately. Excellent review.
                                          ~~ Melissa Clarina Ann
FC: Thank you, Suzanne and Melissa!

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Emilia Fox and Adrien Brody as the jews are marched out of Warsaw

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