the pianist (2002)


director: roman polanski

adrien brody, thomas kretschmann, julia rayner

Director Roman Polanski’s own experience as a child refugee from the Cracow ghetto during World War 2 informs every painful minute of his movie version of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir of surviving the Nazi extermination of Poland’s Jews. It’s a film Polanski has threatened to make for three decades, and it’s as brutal and affecting as any fan of the director could imagine.

Adrien Brody plays Szpilman in a star-making performance, increasingly gaunt and haunted as the film brutalizes both Szpilman and his city. Polanski starts the story with the German invasion of Poland, which literally blows Szpilman’s world apart, and follows him through the creation and eventual extermination of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Jews, the doomed Warsaw uprising, and the last stand of the German army. It’s a storyline best described as a methodically constructed nightmare.

Polanski is probably one of a scant handful of natural cinema geniuses alive today, a director born for his art, whose own life has been an unhappy shadow of his films’ obsession with tragedy. The Pianist is a return to his peak form, the period that produced Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown and The Tenant. That would be, for those who love his work, a very high peak.

Brody as Szpilman is a marvel to watch, clinging to hope and dignity while he and his family are impoverished and humiliated, then broken when brute luck spares him deportation to the extermination camps. His performance after the liquidation of the ghetto is an illustration of the simple, animal will to survive, lived in cramped cubbyholes and locked rooms while his world is destroyed. When Szpilman finally emerges from hiding, it’s to a lunar landscape of rubble and dust, and Polanski presents this vision of hell on earth as an almost miraculous vision, awful but miraculous for a man resigned to die.