Based upon Wladyslaw Szpilman's autobiography of his years spent in hiding during World War II, "The Pianist" (IMDb listing) brings this remarkable true tale of endurance to life.
Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a young, celebrated, Jewish pianist living in a freshly occupied Poland at the outset of the war. Moved from ghetto to ghetto as the Nazi's begin their reign of terror, Szpilman and his family spend the better part of three years struggling to survive and remain together. After a long period of slow decline, and finally, outright suffering, Szpilman is separated from his family, and spends the next years of the war trying to keep himself alive with the help of his admirers, and even his enemies. As he becomes ravaged by the effects of hunger, and grows increasingly paranoid, Szpilman finds solace in his piano accomplishments, which gives him the drive to keep going.
Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" represents another powerful chapter in the Holocaust film genre. A searing, often staggering portrait of survival, the film takes the position of the outsider looking in, much like Polanski's recent position in filmmaking circles. "The Pianist" is Polanski's strongest work in decades, showcasing a filmmaker who appears to be fully capable again after years of stumbling around trying to find a focal point ("Death and the Maiden," the under appreciated "The Ninth Gate"). The film is an even bigger triumph as these tales of horror and despair continue to be made with alarming regularity, with each new entry into this genre often better than the previous. Two months ago, Tim Blake Nelson's "The Grey Zone" marched into theaters and pummeled audiences with its bleak direction and relentlessly theatrical dialog. "The Pianist" is a much more lucid look at the WWII experience, with Polanski's direction humane and psychologically eruptive, though not lacking for one second in graphic depictions of Nazi extremes. Yet, with a director who has such a wealth of classics behind him ("Chinatown," "Rosemary's Baby"), "The Pianist" is a more assured picture than "Zone," or any other recent Holocaust film.
"The Pianist" is a much tougher experience than expected though, as the audience is forced to spend 145 minutes watching a man go to great lengths to survive the death around him. This isn't easy, as it feels as though Polanski wants us to experience every last moment. Admirable? Definitely. However, this does make the film a bit pokey in the second act, as Szpilman's journey takes him into isolation and near madness. After an emotional and quickly paced first act, the film's plunge into isolation makes sections of the film dramatically wobbly. Polanski regains control with a taut and poignant third act, as Szpilman makes his way into the final moments of the Nazi regime.
It is Adrien Brody's performance as Szpilman that forms "The Pianist's" dramatic spine. With his studied, forceful, restrained performance, Brody authoritatively carries the film anywhere it chooses to go. To this point, I've really enjoyed Brody's output as an actor, with his fine work in "Bread and Roses," "Summer of Sam," and the recent "Harrison's Flowers" all showcasing a committed and bright young actor. "The Pianist" takes Brody to another level, clearly demonstrating his abilities to hold together a film with his bulging, perceptive eyes, and his eerie commitment to embodying Szpilman's journey into hunger-induced emaciation. Brody's been great before, but in this film, he's a true revelation.
As with any film cut from this cloth, "The Pianist" is not an easy film to enjoy. It takes considerable patience to imbibe yourself with its power, but the tale is amazing, the director steady, and the lead performance outstanding, and that's sufficient enough to recommend the picture.
Filmfodder Grade: B+