If you’re over the age of twelve, you’ve heard your share of holocaust stories: Anne Frank, Schindler’s List, Night is a popular junior high read. These stories of spirit and survival in one of the darkest times in human history are all harrowing and worthy of remembrance. Adding on to that list is The Pianist, worthy of all its praises.
The story is that of real life concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who lived in Warsaw, Poland as Nazi Germany swept through Europe. As hardships intensify, from not being allowed in the park or coffee shops to being relocated to the ghetto, Szpilman (Adrian Brody) keeps a passively positive attitude. Through old friends from the radio station, he tries to pull some strings hoping to get his family out before its too late.
Throughout the film, we never see, or hardly hear about concentration camps, yet the horrors of Nazi Germany are just as present. Without any violence in the ghetto, people lie dead in the streets from illness or starvation. Brick walls are hastily build, trapping the Jews in the ghetto and children found tunneling underneath are beaten to death on the spot. While waiting for hours for a train to take them away, Szpilman’s family listens to a woman wail non stop because she smothered her baby in an attempt to stay hidden from the Nazis.
Brody’s depiction of Szpilman is astounding, moving and worth of his Oscar. He’s a quiet artist, passive, sensible and never makes a fuss, qualities that probably help him in such dire circumstances. There’s a sense of sadness and loss about him that only deepens as the film progresses and Szpilman grows weaker. For the role, Brody lost over thirty pounds and looks like a sickly skeleton in an over sized suit.
At a later point in the film,Szpilman is discovered and asked to play a piano to prove he’s really a pianist. After a long moment of tense hesitation, Szpilman plays for his life. There’s a somber sense about him, knowing this song may be his last and he plays his heart out. It can be seen in his breath against the cold that he cherishes this moment and can only hope to live. It’s more moving and beautiful that I imagined, I could only pray that his humanity would let him be spared.
Onto more technical notes, Roman Polanski’s vision is wonderfully rendered though some excellent cinematography. So many films set in European cities feel so confined, it’s all gray streets flanked by ugly buildings. Not many promising shots. But when Szpilman is hiding out, locked in an apartment, his only view is out the window, and that’s the view the camera shows us. We get a view down to the street, where a lot of startling action takes place. In one apartment, Szpilman is able to see one of the ghetto walls, and each side is fighting. Later, when he’s taken refuge in a hospital, his only safe window is a small break in fogged glass over a toilet, but he’s still able to see plenty going on.
It is understandable that many people just don’t want to see another holocaust film, they’re depressing, I agree. For some, The Pianist is the holocaust film to see, others would prefer Schindler’s List. How do you know which to choose? The Pianist is for those who want to see a one man survival through Warsaw, the struggles there and no depictions of concentration camps. If you’d like to see one man save hundreds of Jews, horrific camp scenes and SS violence that will give you nightmares in stark black and white, then pick Schindler’s List. An easier comparison: Pianist is to Schindler as Monet is to Van Gogh.