Cast: Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox
hicago won the Best Picture Award at this year’s Academy Awards, but the biggest short-term winner was The Pianist. The Holocaust-era war drama earned surprise wins in three major categories, doubled the number of screens on which it is being shown in America, and earned a considerable boost in box-office figures.
The film is based on the biography of its gifted titular musician, Warsaw Jew Wladyslaw Szpilman, who escaped the German death camps and survived amidst the chaos and rubble of the Warsaw ghetto, eventually to be rescued by a German officer.
The film earned top honors at Cannes, the BAFTAs, and the Cesar Awards, but its Oscar-night success still came as a jolt. Best Actor winner Adrien Brody has received most of the attention for the film after spontaneously kissing Halle Berry and delivering a heartfelt speech at the Oscar ceremony, but far more memorable is his performance. Despite being in nearly every frame of this 140-minute film, Brody’s Szpilman is a picture of stoicism amidst a tornado of death and destruction. Brody portrays Szpilman as an enigmatic figure and resists the temptation to color his survival as an example of any particular sort of cunning or heroism. Instead, it is fate, reputation, charity, and, most of all, luck that allowed the pianist to survive from the very start of World War II through to its end in Europe.
Despite Brody’s work, it is Best Director winner Roman Polanski whose presence is most felt and who is clearly responsible for the film’s success. This is an extremely personal film from a man who has experienced plenty of pain in his life. A Jewish child living in Krakow when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Polanski eventually survived the war after being pushed through the barbed wire of a Nazi camp and living on the streets. His father also survived, but his mother did not. Still haunted by the experience and loss, Polanski isn’t interested in relating survival to anything other than fortune, lest to do so could be considered disrespectful to his mother and the millions of other victims.
Even though The Pianist was hemmed by a director who suffered the Holocaust first-hand, Polanski doesn’t seek to educate or use the film as a history lesson. In some ways, Szpilman’s experiences are unfortunately not unique to his time. Despite being played against the backdrop of the horrors of the Warsaw ghettos, the creation of labor camps, and the Nazi pogrom, Szpilman’s attempts to survive in Warsaw more than anything paints a life during wartime and trying to remain human amidst a systematic process of dehumanization and humiliation.
Thankfully then, The Pianist is drained of the melodrama and the overarching ambition that saps lesser Holocaust films. Polanski’s violence is unflinching and impersonal. He films numerous executions, but they’re almost rarely shot up close. The victims aren’t people the audience is necessarily supposed to have any specific connection with— despite the horrific deaths, the focus of the scene are the internally tormented Jews forced to passively watch their brethren indiscriminately die. For Szpilman, it’s not the atrocities in the ghetto or the loss of his family that pains him. He doesn’t have time to lament what he has lost—he barely has the wherewithal to consider who he is. He is simply the pianist, and it is only when he regains the rest of his identity through his art that he is able to attempt to reconcile with all that he has experienced— just as Polanski has done with this film.
By: Scott Plagenhoef
Published on: 2003-09-01