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The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski (MB)

Roman Polanski’s finest film for decades has already won numerous awards – including Best Film for 2002 at both the National Society of Film Critics in the United States and the Palme D’Or at Cannes. It is certainly a film of considerable artistic merit, empowered as it is by Polanski’s vivid direction, a sort of conscious dissemination in celluloid of his own wartime memories, ones he has largely refused to talk or write about until now, and by Adrien Brody’s stunning portrayal of the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a performance a world apart from his last major role as a spike-haired punk in Spike Lee’s corrosive Summer of Sam.

Based on Szpilman’s own memoirs published in Warsaw in 1946 – and, therefore, along with Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, one of the most contemporaneous accounts of the German occupation of Europe – the film is a sparing indictment of one individual’s story of survival. The book is a harrowing masterpiece of almost unbearably restrained honesty, so much so that Szpilman never looked at it again; it is an interpretative emotion which Polanski sees fit to partly remove from his own vision of the Ghetto where the honesty is anything but restrained. Polanski’s vision is simply searing in its white-heat anger.

Whilst Szpilman’s account of the Ghetto is intensely autobiographical, almost telescopic, and necessarily limited in what it can describe, Polanski’s interpretation of events is more panoramic and more bitterly devised. Thus, as the Ghetto is being built like a citadel within the walls of Warsaw (time, which moves so quickly, but so naturally, throughout the film’s 145 minutes, necessitates us seeing the beginning of the wall one moment with a later shot, just seconds apart, showing it complete with barbed wire) Polanski inflicts on the viewer a picture of German brutality Szpilman can only have been a part witness to. A Jew complains that it is cold so he is made to dance by a German soldier, for example. There are countless executions, for so meaningless a reason and so randomly undertaken, as to make Spzilman’s own survival all the more incredible. In another scene, from within the Ghetto, Szpilman’s family are witnesses to a raid on a flat opposite where a wheelchair-bound man is thrown from the balcony onto the street below. Yet, Polanski also focuses on the meanspiritedness within the Ghetto; a woman is robbed of her gruel by another Jew, only for it to spill onto the filthy cobbled street, where it is hastily eaten as the woman dissolves into tears and hysterics.

The film is neatly circular in the sense that it begins and ends in the same place, and with the same music. It was on September 23rd 1939 that Szpilman was playing for Warsaw Radio Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp minor when German shelling interrupted the broadcast; six years later, he opened his first post-war broadcast with the same piece. Music – which Polanski uses so effectively to bridge the gap between barbarity and a nether-world civilization partly suspended – proves yet one more reason why Szpilman survived his incarceration in Warsaw when so many died.

He is at first rescued from the Treblinka death train by a Jewish policeman simply because of his fame as a pianist and he is later fed by the producer at the radio station through generous donations given to secure Szpilman’s confinement in safe houses throughout the city (although Polanski’s suggestion is that Szpilman was allowed to contract jaundice through neglect). Hearing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata being played in the house in which he finally seeks refuge in the most war-torn part of Warsaw he leaves his attic to be confronted by a German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, beautifully played by Thomas Kretschmann. Hosenfeld proves Szpilman’s last saviour after Szpilman has played Chopin for him, subsequently bringing him food and blankets and even giving him a German top-coat – which when the Russians reach Warsaw almost costs Szpilman his life because he is assumed to be German.

Polanski brings a couple of beautiful musical touches to his characterisation of Szpilman. The second flat in which Szpilman must spend his solitary captivity houses a piano yet all he can do is hover his fingers above the keyboard. When asked by Hosenfeld what he does Szpilman replies "I am a pianist…I was a pianist." When asked to play for him, the playing is at first tentative but then becomes incendiary as if Szpilman is rediscovering his art.

The Pianist will naturally evoke comparison with Spielberg’s epic Schindler’s List, a film which Spielberg had asked Polanski to direct for him (he refused). Both are very different films – not least because it would be a mistake to call The Pianist, as some critics have, a ‘Holocaust film’. The Holocaust in this film is very much implied with no exterior or interior shots of any concentration camps until the very final scenes where it is not the Jews who are incarcerated but the Germans, among them Szpilman’s final saviour, Hosenfeld. Moreover, Polanski’s film is almost unique in the genre by giving us a highly individual view of a universal event. When Szpilman’s family are deported to Treblinka the very last we see of them is when they are forced onto the train in Warsaw – although Polanski makes us aware through nothing other than the tension of the scene that their fate is never in question. That we are also a part of Szpilman’s own escape from fate, and their inevitable death, gives Polanski’s film a parallel sense of epic stature and intimacy, something lacking in Spielberg’s tour de force.

Notably, it is the music that sets these films poles apart. John William’s worthy, and Oscar-winning, score for Schindler’s List bears all the hallmarks of an innate Jewishness, as much an emblem of the film’s action as the action itself; in contrast, Wojciech Kilar’s understated score, with its Bergian, almost brittle tonality (and so often recalling the string quartet rather than an overt orchestration) makes the horror of Polanski’s vision all the more powerful. It is that very understatement which makes Polanski’s film all the more difficult to watch and so uncompromising.

The acting is uniformly excellent with the brilliant Brody giving us a performance of the highest quality. Physically, his transformation from a healthy, pre-War pianist to a ravaged human being scavenging amongst the iced ruins is masterfully done. Stalwarts of the British screen – Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman – play the Szpilman parents with compassion and understanding. But it is Polanski’s part dispassionate, part fiery direction which leaves the greatest impression. The sense this is such a personal journey – as was Spielberg’s – gives the film a stark, dual intimacy. It would be very hard to think of a finer piece of cinema this director has done, or which the viewer will see this year.

Marc Bridle


The Pianist’s theatrical release in the United Kingdom is on 24th January 2003. The film has just opened in the United States.

Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir is published by Phoenix priced Ł7.99.

Readers with Quick Time can view a trailer for the film here:


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