Tuesday 1 March 2022

Movie Review: The Pianist (2002)

A survival story based on real events, The Pianist recreates Holocaust abominations in Poland through the endurance ordeal of a gentle pianist.

In Warsaw of 1939, the career of celebrated Jewish piano player Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is interrupted when the army of Nazi Germany marches into Poland. The humiliation of the city's Jewish community starts with the enforced wearing of Star of David arm bands, then all the Jews are forcibly relocated to walled-off sections of the city. Throughout the ordeal, Szpilman does his best to support his parents and siblings, and refuses invitations to join collaborators in the form of guards.

Nazi atrocities multiply, and countless Jews are unceremoniously murdered in the streets. The Szpilmans and thousands of others are herded towards trains destined for the concentration camps. Fate intervenes and Wladyslaw avoids boarding the train, although he is separated from his family. He joins a group of prison labourers working under Nazi guards in Warsaw. Szpilman awaits an opportunity to slip away, although many horrors still await.

An adaptation of Szpilman's book written for the screen and directed by Roman Polanski, The Pianist is an unblinking look at the human capacity for evil. The film packs an almost physical punch, the Nazi atrocities unleashed on Warsaw's Jewish population presented in a stark, fearfully matter-of-fact style. Dignity disappears, life is cheapened, and death salivates over a population selected for extermination by monstrous men.

This is a story of war, but not about soldiers, armament, strategies, politics, or battlefields. Instead, Szpilman's personal window (and sometimes his literal windows) frame all events. Family members, acquaintances, employers, local guards, collaborators, and most importantly, non-Jewish Poles who risked everything to save their neighbours, move in and abruptly out of the film in accordance with Szpilman's experiences. Historical moments, like the Ghetto Uprising and later the Warsaw Uprising, unfold through Szpilman's eyes, as he clings to the concept of existing.

From a narrative perspective, this is a drama where the protagonist is simply tasked with refusing to give up, and The Pianist hunkers down in the deep trenches of an individual's will to survive against overwhelming adversity. In an unforgettable performance Adrien Brody as Szpilman is the one constant over 150 minutes, portraying physical and mental erosion due to despair and malnutrition as Polanski underlines the ravages of near-starvation.

Musical interludes offer the briefest respites, whenever Szpilman finds a piano and either plays it for real or in his imagination. The final chapter finally features the faintest ray of hope, as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) of the now clearly about-to-be-defeated German army comes face to face with Szpilman, and chooses a path other than immediate violence. 

Polanski exposes a twisted regime's barbarism without ever elevating suffering into faux heroism. And in a city annihilated by ideological hate, The Pianist seeks the human heart, stubbornly throbbing.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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