Director: Roman Polanski. 2002. 148 mins. In Competition
Working from material close to his own childhood experiences in war ravaged Poland, Roman Polanski has created his most satisfying film in twenty years. Old-fashioned, stately and a little uneven, The Pianist recovers from a disappointing start to mature into a restrained and moving account of one man's war. Following an essentially passive figure as he observes the best and worst of human nature, it has much in common with Primo Levi's The Truce filmed in 1996 by Francesco Rosi and also premiered at Cannes. A slightly more commercial proposition, especially after its Cannes Palme d'Or win, The Pianist should make an impact as a prestige item in most markets especially where there is critical support for Polanski and for the powerful central performance of Adrien Brody.
Based on the true story of young Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Brody), there is an unmistakable taste of the Europudding to the early scenes of The Pianist. Played in English by a multi-national cast, it is reminiscent of Istvan Szabo's Sunshine as it focuses on Szpilman1s family and their reactions to the nightmare events unfolding around them in 1939 Warsaw. Convinced that the Nazi menace will soon be vanquished by the intervention of France, Britain and perhaps even America, the Szpilman family are representative of a Jewish population surprised and stunned by each successive humiliation that erodes their liberty and seals their fate.
Polanski methodically charts the stages by which the Jews in Poland were subdued and enslaved. We witness the casual sadism of the Nazi officers as Szpilman's father (Finlay) is punished for not showing the proper respect. The lame and crippled are made to dance for the delight of the German soldiers. An old man in a wheelchair is tossed from a building. People are gunned down in the streets as a form of sport. A ghetto is created that separates them from the wider populace.
Care is taken to show that compassion and cruelty were visible on both sides of the divide. Members of the Jewish community reached an accommodation with their oppressors and were even willing to save their own lives by forming a Jewish militia more ruthless than any of the Nazi groups. Yet, it is the intervention of one Jewish militia member that separates Szpilman from his family and saves him from the death camps.
As the focus of the film narrows to Szpilman's lone struggle to survive, it grows in dramatic intensity. Hidden away in apartments, emaciated and alone, he is not a heroic figure. Bravery resides in those who risked their lives to save him and in those Jews who finally took to the streets in the Warsaw uprisings. Dependent on the kindness of strangers and isolated for much of the second half of the film, Brody's performance comes into its own as he captures the fear and loathing of a man running out of hope. Music is his one form of sustenance and there are emotional scenes in which his hands silently glide through a piano recital he may never give again.
In the closing stages of his ordeal, he is saved by the benevolence of German officer Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Kretschmann) whose selfless actions acknowledge the possibility of a different world in which the two men might have found common ground in their mutual love of music. Physically committed to his performance, an increasingly gaunt and bedraggled Brody makes you genuinely concerned for his health. Underplaying beautifully, he stresses the terror and vulnerability of a man who merely wished to survive.
The absence of a conventional hero at the centre of the story may limit its value in commercial terms but it does allow Polanski to present us with a witness to the unimaginable horrors of history and their devastating impact on ordinary lives. Clearly a labour of love for all concerned, it offers a recreation of wartime Warsaw that is both epic in scope and intimate in detail marking a particular triumph for cinematographer Pawel Edelman and production designer Allan Starski, an Oscar winner for Schindler's List.
Prod co: R.P Productions
Int'l sales: Studio Canal
Prod: Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde
Co-prod: Gene Gutowski
Scr: Ronald Harwood from a book by Wladyslaw Szpilman
Cinematography: Pawel Edelman
Prod des: Allan Starski
Ed: Herve De Luze
Mus: Wojciech Kilar
Main cast: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard.