The Pianist Review Essay Peer

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The Pianist


From 1939 to 1945, the world merely watched while six million Jews were viciously executed by the Nazis. Never in the history of the world had man kind experienced such evil against one class of people. The Pianist, a movie directed by Roman Polanski, is a touching, yet brutally honest film about a man living under the unforgiving conditions of the Holocaust. Adrien Brody demonstrates spectacular acting skills while playing this man, Wladyslaw Szpilman. The story starts out in Warsaw, Poland, 1939, at the house of Szpilman’s Jewish family. Szpilman helped to support his family by playing the piano at different cafes and bars, and for the Polish radio station. By 1940, the Nazi force had already impacted many of…show more content…

The Warsaw ghetto had to house about 360,000 Jews at the time Wladyslaw Szpilman arrived. Each family was given an extremely small area to live in and usually had to share the space with at least one other family. To make matters worse, the Nazis had ordered a wall to be built around the entire ghetto, sealing off the Jewish community from the rest of Warsaw. The ghetto became home to 140,000 more Jews just after a couple of months since Szpilman had arrived - that’s half a million Jews in sixteen blocks! A rumor that the Nazis were going to liquidate the ghetto began to spread around the community. The only way to avoid this was to obtain an employment certificate. On the 16th of August 1942, Szpilman’s family was deported in cattle cars to concentration camps. Wladyslaw escaped this deadly fate with the help of a Jewish policeman. For two and a half years, Szpilman suffered torture, starvation, and isolation while hiding from the Nazis. By then, there were only 60,000 Jews left, out of half a million! The 60,000 who are left worked for the Nazis. These Jews snuck in guns and bombs through the potato sacks they received from the market for their work. They then threw the weapons over the walls of the ghetto to the people inside during the night. This was the start of a revolt against the Germans. Wladyslaw became very sick during the time of the revolt, at which the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were killing many of the Nazis. During the revolt,

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The ambition to produce a comprehensive vision -- a single spectacle adequate to the Holocaust -- ultimately defeated Steven Spielberg's admirable and serious ''Schindler's List.'' Mr. Polanski, in staging a narrow, partial slice of history, has made a film that is both drier and more resonant than Mr. Spielberg's.

One of Mr. Polanski's trademarks is what might be called (to continue multiplying paradoxes) a humane sadism. He has always been fascinated by what happens to weak, ordinary people -- Mia Farrow in ''Rosemary's Baby,'' for instance, or Jack Nicholson in ''Chinatown'' -- when they are intruded upon by evil forces more powerful than they, and he punishes his actors, peeling back their vanity to make them show the face of humanity under duress.

One of Mr. Brody's most appealing features -- from ''King of the Hill'' 10 years ago through such varied and underseen pictures as ''Restaurant,'' ''Summer of Sam'' and ''Bread and Roses'' more recently -- is his quick-witted, almost smart-alecky cockiness. His Szpilman, in the first section of ''The Pianist,'' has the gait of a self-satisfied dandy and the smug smile of a man who takes charm and good fortune as his birthright. As he plays piano in a broadcast studio, an explosion rattles the building. He ducks, wipes some plaster off his sleeve, and keeps playing. Later Szpilman refuses to allow the widespread panic at the German invasion to interfere with more pressing matters, like the seduction of a star-struck young woman named Dorota (Emilia Fox).

History, the occupying Germans and Mr. Polanski then conspire to wipe the smirk off his face. The Nazi takeover is followed by a swift, brutal chronicle of violation and humiliation as the Szpilman family are stripped of their possessions, their dignity (the elderly father, played by Frank Finlay, is beaten by a German soldier for daring to use the sidewalk) and their home. With the other Jews of Warsaw, they are herded into the ghetto, a captive labor force subject to continual culling by disease, starvation and the random violence of their tormentors.

Mr. Polanski, working in Poland for the first time in 40 years (and also in Prague), reconstructs the look and rhythm of life in the ghetto with care and sobriety. You feel the dread and confusion of the inhabitants, and you also observe their intuitive, futile attempts to master the situation -- circulating underground newspapers, smuggling contraband through the walls and quietly arming themselves for resistance.

The survival instinct is shown to exist in a weird, numb state that combines defiance and resignation. And Szpilman's evasion of death involves a curious combination of pluck, passivity and arrogance. He is the only member of his family who avoids being shipped to the extermination camps, and he later manages to escape from the ghetto altogether. During the 1943 ghetto uprising, he is locked in a secure apartment in the gentile part of the city, and he watches helplessly from the window as the partisans begin their brave, doomed resistance to the German occupiers.

From this moment forward ''The Pianist'' -- which opens today in New York and Los Angeles -- becomes a tour de force of claustrophobia and surreal desperation, and Mr. Polanski ruthlessly strips his Szpilman down to the bare human minimum. He is neither an especially heroic nor an entirely sympathetic fellow, and by the end he has been reduced to a nearly animal condition -- sick, haggard and terrified. But then the film's climax offers the most dramatic paradox of all: a glimpse of how the impulses of civilization survive in the midst of unparalleled barbarism. When I first saw this film last spring in Cannes (where it won the Golden Palm), I thought Szpilman's encounter, in the war's last days, with a music-loving Nazi officer (Thomas Kretschmann) courted sentimentality by associating the love of art with moral decency, an equation the Nazis themselves, steeped in Beethoven and Wagner, definitively refuted. But on a second viewing, the scene, scored to the ravishing, sorrowful music of Chopin, was a painful and ridiculous testament to just how bizarre the European catastrophe of the last century was.

Szpilman may have been the butt of a monstrous joke, but the last laugh -- appropriately deadpan -- was his. ''What will you do when this is over?'' the officer asks. ''I'll play piano on Polish radio,'' Szpilman replies. Which is exactly what he did until his death two years ago.

''The Pianist'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has many scenes of extreme violence.


Directed by Roman Polanski; written by Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman; director of photography, Pawel Edelman; edited by Hervé De Luze; music by Wojciech Kilar; production designer, Allan Starski; produced by Mr. Polanski, Robert Benmussa and Alain Sarde; released by Focus Features. Running time: 149 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Adrien Brody (Wladyslaw Szpilman), Emilia Fox (Dorota), Michael Zebrowksi (Jurek), Ed Stoppard (Henryk), Maureen Lipman (The Mother), Frank Finlay (The Father), Jessica Kate Meyer (Halina), Julia Rayner (Regina), Ruth Platt (Janina) and Thomas Kretschmann (Capt. Wilm Hosenfeld).

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