Netflix Movie Month: "The Pianist" Review

Photo Credit: Focus Features

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Rating: R
Length: 150 minutes
Release Date: March 28, 2003
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Genre: Biography / Drama / History

"The Pianist” is a gripping story of survival set in the city of Warsaw during World War II. A haunting cinematic rendition of Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir "The Death of a City”, it is also an indirect memoir of director Roman Polanski, who was once himself a young victim of the Nazi regime. Adrien Brody plays Szpilman, a brilliant young pianist and composer at the time of Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939. He witnesses, along with his family, the onset of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. The progression from their initial optimism to the grim realities of the Jewish ghetto is subtly punctuated. At the beginning, they rejoice at the news that Britain and France declared war on Germany and see the Nazi menace as a passing evil. Slowly, they are forced into poverty, humiliation, and, ultimately, death. They wear Jewish stars, walk by the side of the pavement and leave their homes behind, finally moving into the Warsaw ghetto, where death becomes a daily presence. Throughout this ordeal, they struggle to remain together – and succeed.

The depth of Szpilman's suffering becomes real on screen only when he finds himself alone, saved by a friend in the Jewish Ghetto Police from deportation to a concentration camp. His loneliness is palpable, as if it is an invisible presence in the movie. Disoriented, moving among dead bodies and desolated war scenes, he cries for the first time. Later on, he becomes a slave laborer, smuggles weapons for an upcoming Jewish revolt before escaping its ultimate failure, then hides for years in Warsaw. He narrowly escapes the destruction of the apartment where he hides and is left to scavenge for food and water among the ruins.

"The Pianist" is, undeniably, a story of loss. Szpilman loses everything: his freedom, his family, his love, his human dignity, even his right to play the piano. It is almost unbearable to watch as Szpilman's preoccupations with music, love and intellectual pursuits regress to the basic, animalistic drive for food, water and shelter. Among the horrors of war and the reduction of humans to scared, famished beings, there are still moments of beauty: the view of a beloved woman, the song of a cello, and, finally, the unlikely generosity of the enemy.

If there is one scene guaranteed to stay with the viewer for a long time, it is the depiction of Szpilman's fateful encounter with Captain Wilm Hosenfeld at the end of the movie. The German officer discovers Szpilman hiding in a destroyed Warsaw house and asks him to play the piano. Roman Polanski does not seem to suggest that Szpilman's survival has anything to do with some liberating virtue of music. He merely survives by luck and necessary determination. In this scene, however, music finally rises to the sky. After years of stillness and desperation, it is impossible not to see it as liberating. Szpilman is meant to survive as long as he is playing. The end of Chopin's Ballade in G minor brings the inevitable question of Szpilman's fate at the hands of the German officer. Hosenfeld, however, helps Szpilman survive – a fate that, as history makes clear, Hosenfeld is not likely to share. In the end, Szpilman is saved by the Polish troops liberating Warsaw, narrowly escaping death in a final twist of fate.

It is not unusual that movies draw from the lives of their creators, as movies are, after all, extensions of the artists' experiences, worldviews, and, sometimes, unaccomplished desires. However, the stories behind "The Pianist” are as moving as the ones on the screen. Director Roman Polanski is himself a survivor of the Kraków ghetto who witnessed his father being marched off to an Austrian concentration camp and whose mother died in Auschwitz. Beyond Polanski and Szpilman's stories, however, the look behind the scenes gets even more interesting. Thomas Kretschmann, the actor behind the brilliant interpretation of Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, had his own dramatic encounter with history when trying to escape East Germany by crossing four borders at the age of 19. Adding to this, Adrien Brody's self-imposed incursion into loneliness, estrangement and starvation in preparation for this movie makes the character on the screen incredibly believable and authentic, bringing Szpilman's history to life. As if "The Pianist” is not already emotionally overcharged, the realities behind it make it even more vibrant. Even if only for the sake of witnessing how an immense creative power finds ways to filter personal and historical realities and dramas, "The Pianist” is an absolute must-see.

Rating: 4 out of 5