***/**** Image C Sound A Extras B+
starring Adrien Brody, Daniel Caltagirone, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay
screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman
directed by Roman Polanski
by Walter Chaw It comes as little surprise that when the Nazis begin to build a wall around the Warsaw ghetto is also when Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama The Pianist becomes distinctive, as the director is at his best bound by the endlessly symbolic edifices and crannies of architecture. The story of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) and his survival under the auspices of the Polish underground, serendipity, and fear is almost anti-heroic, its central figure passive like the most memorable of Polanski's heroes (Rosemary, Carol Ledoux, Trelkovsky, even Jake Gittes after a fashion), and its indignities more intimate than the grand tapestry of the Holocaust generally allows. The loss of Szpilman's entire family to The Final Solution is less wrenching than the line that precedes it as Szpilman says to his sister, "I wish I knew you better," and less difficult again as the musician's inability to play a piano he's imprisoned with in a tenement flat while in hiding. Far from insensitive, The Pianist is actually intensely humanist, focused as it is on the little indignities that bring a man from his comfortable environment to the furtive edge of capricious extinction.
It may seem easy to do so and a contrivance besides, but The Pianist is truly the distillation of Polanski's life and work. It is a convergence of his experiences as a child in occupied Poland, made sport of by Nazi soldiers while separated from his parents spirited away to a concentration camp--in addition to his best films: the meticulously structured constructions of Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, and The Tenant with the perversity and institutional corruption of Chinatown. Chillingly, an aborted romance between Szpilman and a Polish gentile, blonde and blue-eyed, recalls Polanski's lost bride Sharon Tate--the last scene between the two featuring Szpilman in exile and his would-be lover pregnant. The echoes and phantoms haunting the film are omnipresent and oppressive, in other words, not even counting the memory of the Holocaust itself, which casts a pall over the slow escalation of The Pianist's first act through the post-apocalyptic surrealism of its conclusion.
The picture opens with Szpilman in a recording booth while Nazis shell the studio from the outside. This image and its suggestion of an almost comical detachment are vital to an understanding of Szpilman. As played by Brody, an actor almost entirely inward gazing, the titular musician is a creature of delicacy and grace--the look of shellshock and skittishness affected by Brody the perfect counterpoint to the perfect banality of the Nazi atrocity--a scene where an old man in a wheelchair is thrown from a high balcony, or countless others where citizens are arbitrarily assassinated by dispassionate storm troopers, reacted to with a start then a steady, mounting uncertainty. The Pianist, if nothing else, captures the terrified impotence of the methodically dehumanized--enough so that the audience, by some point near the middle (soon after the slaughter of the old crippled man's family), finds itself as distant and vaguely disbelieving as Szpilman. It is in essence irrefutable, brutal evidence of a coven, and even we doubt poor Rosemary.
Therein lies the brilliance and the flaw of The Pianist. As a Holocaust film, it is extraordinary in its ability to put one of a mind of the blitzed: so deadened by the suddenness and meaninglessness of violence that the threat of it is at once a constant horror and no longer a surprise. Brody has the right demeanour for Polanski's ineffectual alter ego, but the time that we spend with him is frustrating. So much the cipher, the Holocaust seems a bad dream to him (and to us by extension), and when he wakes in the end to find himself ineffectual still, restored in his glass booth and recast in the role of thwarted saviour, the irony of it isn't so much bittersweet as it is fatalistic. Music is shown to be Szpilman's passion, but music is also relied upon too heavily as the only grace in the midst of chaos--once saving the man by giving him employment, then saving him as he hides beneath his instrument's platform, finally, most literally, when he plays for a soft-hearted Nazi officer who spares him upon learning of his talent. The sentiment is lovely, but it seems too sentimental in a film that is otherwise interested in de-sentimentalizing everything. Although music may have been the lifeline for Szpilman, it seems hollow salvation for the demons that haunt Polanski's films.
Ultimately, The Pianist reveals itself as a film essential for the Polanski completist and, particularly, for those interested in an alternative to the subversively sweet manipulations of Spielberg's Schindler's List. By reducing the scope, Polanski paints a clearer picture of the individual horror of an unimaginably huge event. The picture is muted and dour, especially in Szpilman's delirious traipse through the wasteland during its final hour, but its resolution seems somehow too optimistic--it is the Polanski of Frantic, not the Polanski of Knife in the Water; true to life or no, as art it lets the air out of the balloon. By the end of The Pianist, one gets the distinct feeling that Polanski is drawing back from the flame a little--he's close enough to the essence of his art here to earn the picture a strong recommendation, yet a film that touches greatness sets a higher standard for itself. Originally published: December 25, 2002.
by Bill Chambers This part of the review pertains to the 3-disc "Limited Soundtrack Edition" of The Pianist from TVA, a Canadian import. Let me say right off the bat, I was disappointed by the film's video quality; the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image appears to have been derived from a PAL source, lending the picture a BBC feel that it does not have when excerpted for the documentary segment on the companion disc. Colour and contrast are the strongest aspects of the presentation, but I do wonder if (and doubt that) the U.S. release from Universal contains such a damp-looking transfer. On the other hand, TVA effectively transforms The Pianist into a Superbit title by devoting an entire platter to the film itself (Universal has crammed both The Pianist and its supplementary material onto a single DVD -- Editor's Note: I have just learned that the Universal disc is a DVD-14, making this a moot point); the result is flawless compression, and the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital tracks have room to breathe next to one another. The film's subtle soundmix is especially spacious in DTS--the opening explosion is almost profound in its transparency.
Disc 2 includes the Focus Features-produced "A Story of Survival: Behind the Scenes of The Pianist" (39 mins.), an essential making-of that put me in my place with regards to Adrien Brody's performance, which was invested with the kind of Method dedication that gets you honourably discharged from military duty. Therein also, director Roman Polanski tells a rare anecdote from his childhood that suggests the same kind of "astonishing objectivity" towards ghetto life that he says attracted him to Wladyslaw Szpilman's autobiography. Three theatrical trailers, eight TV spots, interesting poster and photo galleries, stereo bonus tracks (Chopin's "Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor (1830)" and "Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 1"), a CD spot, text-based "Director's Notes" and a Q&A with Polanski rendered superfluous by the aforementioned featurette, text-based histories of The Warsaw Ghetto and Szpilman's life (the latter supplying an invaluable overview of the musician's post-war life and career), and cast and crew biographies finish off the second platter. As this is the "Limited Soundtrack Edition", Disc 3 is Sony's soundtrack CD, featuring various Chopin selections and an original composition from Wojciech Kilar. Wafer keepcases store all three DVDs while a cardboard sleeve houses the set proper. Originally published: May 27, 2003.