The Pianist

The Pianist posterRated R
Running Time: 148 minutes
Directed by Roman Polanski
Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
Based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman.


I like Polanski’s films in general. Chinatown (1974) is a classic. Once in a while, he makes a flop, though. Pirates (1986) was pure drivel. However, I knew I had to see The Pianist, as it has been billed as his most personal film to date. Polanski, himself, is a Holocaust survivor and this film is said to draw somewhat on his boyhood experiences.

The Pianist is the true story of the harrowing struggle of one man’s survival in the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland. It is a truly great film, and Adrian Brody’s lead performance is sure to jettison him to stardom. (Brody’s Oscar Night kiss to Halle Berry and his passionate acceptance speech was a great moment also, and contributed greatly to his reputation, making him a hot topic for those unfamiliar with his work.)

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) was the last big Holocaust film to garner such critical acclaim. While Spielberg did a phenomenal job, I think that the point of view of Polanski’s film is more gripping, and more true to the Holocaust experience. Polanski has an existentialist bent, whereas even with the darkest of topics, Spielberg can’t help but have a bit of a Hollywoodish tilt. In Schindler’s List we are led through events by the capable Schindler (Liam Neeson), a non Jew, and can take some measure of comfort in the fact that he saved over 1,000 lives through purposeful effort, manipulating the Nazis. In The Pianist, on the other hand, we see events through the ineffectual Szpilman (Adrian Brody), who, though capable with a piano, is totally incapable of manipulating events to save his own life or the lives of anyone else. It is only through sheer dumb luck that he survived the Nazis. Much like Jake in Polanski’s Chinatown, Szpilman can only witness the horrors around him. He is an objective observer, who as screenwriter Ronald Harwood has stated,”…doesn’t complain and has no self-pity.” Thus, with this objective point-of-view, the story avoids the falseness that melodramas often indulge in.

Harwood was approached to adapt the book after Polanski saw his theatrical version of Taking Sides in a Paris playhouse. Taking Sides is the biographical story of Wilhelm Furtwangler, a German conductor who was widely criticized for staying in Germany during the Third Reich. There are definite parallels between The Pianist and Taking Sides. Polanski knew Harwood was up to the task.

And it is an important task. One of the purposes of Art should be to instruct society on what it means to be human; how to maintain our humanity even in the face of real life horror, especially during wartime, when injustice and evil run rampant. Szpilman starts off as a civilized man and we gradually see him degraded to the level of an animal…the lesson being that it could happen to any one of us.

The Pianist joins ranks with countless other artworks, both written and filmed, as lessons to later generations, in the hope that such atrocities will never happen again.


It is 1939. We open with Wladyslaw Szpilman playing Chopin on the piano for a live broadcast of Polish Radio. Nazi bombs fall closer and closer — finally shattering the glass of his recording studio and forcing everyone to flee for their lives.

Szpilman believes everything will be fine, however. Despite the threat of violence, he and his upper-class Jewish family believe that Britain & France will move in and stop the Nazis. He boldly announces “I’m not going anywhere.”

However, the Brits and the French don’t arrive and the Germans begin the gradual plan to seize all Jewish assets. The upper class Szpilman home is gradually reduced to poverty and they are forced to hide money to prevent it from being seized.

Szpilman goes to get a coffee with Dorota, a pretty blonde Gentile that he is attracted to, but they find signs posted that say “NO JEWS”. We know right then, that despite their attraction, they will be torn apart. The relationship can’t last.

The gradual dehumanization of Jews continues. First, Jews are forced to wear armbands. This singles them out for further humiliation, as Szpilman’s father learns when a German officer accosts him on the street, then strikes him across the face for not bowing as he passed by. Szpilman’s father is cautioned to walk in the gutter so he won’t contaminate the sidewalk.

The Szpilmans are forced to sell everything they own at ridiculously low prices just to survive. Then, in 1940, they are informed that all Jews are going to be forcefully segregated within a “Jewish District” (Ghetto). They move there in Autumn. Dorota comes to see Szpilman off, but despite their assurances, we don’t believe they will see each other again.

The Jewish Ghetto is literally walled off with bricks to prevent them from mingling outside of their quarantined area.

The offenses towards Jews grow worse and worse. At one point, at their poor little apartment, Szpilman and his brother are approached by an acquaintance of theirs, Yitzchak Heller, who wants to recruit them for a “Jewish Police Force” that is being set up by the Nazis. Heller insists they can use their power to shield friends and families. Szpilman’s brother, Henryk, is appalled at the notion of being a bully boy for the Nazis. Szpilman refuses also, because he already makes some small change as a piano player at a local café in the ghetto.

Things continue to degenerate. Jews are killed at random and terror reigns. At one point, Szpilman tries to help a small boy who is trying to return home through a small hole in the ghetto wall after searching for food outside. However, some men on the other side of the wall play tug-of-war with the boy, and although Szpilman manages to pull the boy through to his side, they have beaten the boy to death. The sheer injustice of the moment is heartbreaking. But this is only one event. It gets worse.

August 1942 is the midpoint of the film. Szpilman and his family are herded away for “deportation”. At the last moment, Heller uses his power as a Jewish Policeman to pull Szpilman from the train. Szpilman is thankful for the reprieve, but watches in horror as the doors are slammed shut on his entire family and they are carted away to the death camps.
After this, Szpilman is put to work by the Nazis. Skinny to begin with, he becomes gaunt and emaciated. However, hope is not gone and with help from the Polish Resistance, he is able to escape.

What follows is a nightmare of hiding in abandoned buildings, eeking out an existence in the hopes that someday soon the Germans would be forced out of Poland.

At one point, Szpilman is helped out by Dorota, whom he thought he’d never see again. Their reunion is bittersweet, however, since she has married since they last spoke, and Szpilman is fleeing for his life.

During his flight, Szpilman finds himself double-crossed by people he considers allies, and at one point, is actually helped by a German officer who finds him trying to open a can of vegetables within a bombed and abandoned building.

As an audience, we know that Szpilman will survive…after all, the film is based on his autobiography. However, the tension remains up until the very end.

And, at the end, the fickleness of Fate is shown. For every Szpilman there were thousands who didn’t make it. Some were more prepared, some were more brave, and some were more deserving of life, but randomness prevailed.

Unlike in the United States, where ticker tape and music played to celebrate the end of the war, in Poland the victory celebration was more subdued. The survivors tried as best they could to pick up once again and continue. With Szpilman, this meant playing Chopin. He went back to his music and continued to live in Warsaw until his death on July 6th, 2000. He was 88 years old.