13 June, 2010

The Pianist (2002)

Playing for his life

Nominated for European Film, European Director (Roman Polanski), Audience Award European Actor (Adrien Brody), and winner of European Cinematographer (Pawel Edelman), European Film Awards 2002.

One that I have been meaning to do for some time - without doubt, one of the finest films ever made about the Holocaust, and one that, unlike the also truly excellent Schindler's List (1993), manages to convey the unique horrors of those anti-human times in a way that is peculiarly intimate and personal.

Based in no small part on director Roman Polanski's own experiences as a Polish Jew during World War II, The Pianist (2002) tells the story of virtuoso musician Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) who, while not oblivious to the ever-decreasing circles of Nazi tyranny that are overwhelming Warsaw, nevertheless finds solace and escape from the increasing horrors of daily life in the Jewish ghetto via his music, as he is still very much in demand as a pianist in 'polite' Nazi society.

But, when the time comes for Szpilman and his mother (Maureen Lipman), father (Frank Finlay) brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard) and sister Halina (Jessica Kate Meyer) to be herded onto the cattle trains and sent away to their deaths, Szpilman manages to escape. From then on, his life becomes dependent on his own wits, his ability to survive for long periods without food, and the kindness of strangers - in particular, one Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), of the SS...

Wladyslaw Szpilman: It's a funny time to say this, but...
[trailing off]
Halina: What?
Wladyslaw Szpilman: I wish I knew you better.

Spielberg's Schindler's List allowed for the director's customary use of awe in cinema to convey the the extermination of the Jews that took place across Europe from Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938) to Germany's surrender on 9 May 1945, while Polanski's film, with a superb central performance from Brody, communicates the smaller but no less moving personal tragedies that pervaded the lives of millions during the Second World War. Polanski's direction has the real courage of his convictions and, in a way, his unflinching portrayal is even more difficult to watch than Spielberg's film.

A key scene proves this point perfectly - the Szpilman family, becoming aware that Nazi soldiers are storming the tenemant block opposite, turn their house lights off and watch as the soldiers storm into a family's dining room, demanding that all stand. When an obviously disabled man in a wheelchair does not rise, he is taken from the room still in his chair, and dropped from the balcony, six floors up.

The worst of which our species is capable, then? Very much so but, in the pivotal scene involving the starving, freezing Szpilman being asked to play piano by Captain Hosenfeld, who has discovered him hiding near the very end of the war, the quality of mercy is not strained. If you do not cry here, you perhaps never will.

Simply wonderful, but whether you will ever want to watch the film again is another matter entirely.

Awards: Click here for details.

150 mins. In English, German and Russian.

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