The Pianist



France (Fr/Pol/Ger/UK) 2002 : Roman Polanski : 148 mins

The remarkable true story of Wladislaw “Vladek” Szpilman (Adrien Brody), one of the persecuted, ghetto-ised Jewish population of Warsaw under the Third Reich. Narrowly escaping transportation to the death-camps – his mother (Maureen Lipman) and father (Frank Finlay) aren’t so lucky – Szpilman hides out in a succession of very dangerous ‘safe houses’ as the war drags on and the Russians slowly advance to liberate the city.

Based on Szpilman’s autobiography, this is a painfully personal project for director Polanski, himself a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, and he takes a methodical, undeniably old-fashioned but movingly effective approach to genuinely harrowing material. Apart from his talent as a pianist, Szpilman isn’t an especially remarkable, ideological or heroic figure, and he’s a largely passive observer of the grim, historic events that engulf his family and friends – his usual position in the film is at the window of his safe-houses, helplessly watching various epochal events unfold. As he watches, however, the impact on Szpilman is clear: Brody’s sensitive features are apparently capable of displaying infinite levels of suffering,

Unsurprisingly Polanski is strongest at conveying the mounting desperation in Warsaw as the Jewish population come under increasingly harsh pressure from their German tormentors – the film is equally convincing in terms of general mood and specific incident. Almost too convincing, in fact, as many scenes are almost unwatchable compendiums of Nazi atrocity, so that we soon learn to steel ourselves in apprehension of the next outburst of brutality. But even at this extended running-time, the film never goes overboard in its depiction of the grinding misery heaped upon Szpilman and his fellow Poles – though VE Day does seem to take an eternity in arriving. Despite the odd rough-edge and fuzzy patch here and there in Ronald Harwood’s screenplay (Szpilman’s love life remains indistinct) The Pianist is notable as much for what it doesn’t do as for what it does – with an especially welcome avoidance of the sentimentality that mars too many otherwise-laudable holocaust epics.

16th October, 2002
(seen 3rd, Odeon Mansfield)

by Neil Young