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The Pianist (2002)

March 11, 2011

9/10 Survival Sonatas


The Pianist is the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a famous Jewish musician living in Warsaw, Poland when the German army invaded at the outset of World War II and began herding his family and his people into ghettos. After a member of the Jewish Police saves him from being transferred to a concentration camp, he spends the days in his war-torn city working to avoid execution, starvation and sickness by hiding under the Nazis noses, scavenging high and low for food, and relying on his wits as well as his luck.

So it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Holocaust movie and I think this is the first time I’ve actually written about one. Not sure why that is, but this one’s been on my Re-Watch list for a long time, and since it was on its way off my Netflix Instant queue, I figured I was due. As far as the subject matter is concerned, it doesn’t exactly hit home on a personal level since I’ll never understand what it was live through something like that and I don’t have grandparents who can attest otherwise, but since human suffering and persecution will always be universal, so in turn is the impact they each bear.

The first time I saw this was back in high school when it was still in theaters, and, as you can probably imagine, I was taken aback to say the least. It wasn’t just the violence, it wasn’t just Adrien Brody, it was everything all at once that I wasn’t prepared for, that I couldn’t comprehend, and I still can’t comprehend now. It’s not that I’ve ever underestimated the kind of atrocities that the Nazis committed or that any of their practices is news, it’s just one of those things that I wish I couldn’t believe because seeing and hearing are two very different things. So after a nine-year gap between viewings, I couldn’t quite remember everything that happened during the last hour or so when Szpilman is mainly living in secrecy from the Germans, but when it came to the genocide that primarily takes place during that first hour, the memories were vivid.

As a result, the shock value that hit like a truck during my first viewing was somewhat lost for me during this latest refresher course, but don’t mistake that for a complaint, it’s just a testament to how vicious this movie is. It’s the way the scenery looks more like the back lot from Children of Men than a historical biopic. It’s the ashen, decaying bodies of men, women and children sprawled out in the middle of the street and slumped against the sides of buildings in pools of blood as people walk over them like they’ve always been there. It’s the way the Nazi officers senselessly murder droves of Jews with the emotional reaction of swatting a fly. It’s evil personified and complete devastation that works because at one point and time it was real, and it will stun you far greater than any horror movie could ever hope to. There’s a lot to take away from this Szpilman’s story and the way Roman Polanksi tells it, but I tell you what, you will have no delusions as to the horrors of the Holocaust – in or out of the camps – after seeing this.

But, in the end, this is about Szpilman and Brody really did one hell of a job portraying him. After all, he did nab Best Actor right out from under Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicolas Cage and Michael Caine, all of whom gave some of the best performances of their careers. Argue away in regards to whether or not he in fact deserved it, but regardless, this was some seriously demanding stuff and he absolutely stepped up to the challenge. Since he doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue to work with, the role is almost entirely physical and his body language speaks like a bullhorn. It’s watching him play the piano for a living at the height of his health, then watching him deteriorate to where he looks like a human coat hanger as he stumbles around the rubble that was once his home and is forced to play the piano if he wants to live. So impressive that he actually learned to play the piano this well, so painful to watch him go from the guy in the first image up there to the guy down below, and so emotionally wrenching for such a subtle turn.

With that being said, it’s that very quality of Brody’s performance that crosses over to everything else in this movie. It’s powerful without being overdramatic, and it’s deafening without being loud. Folks, with imagery like this, there’s not much need for conversation to drive the message home. Although I love the way the meaning behind that last sentence gets taken to a whole new level when Szpilman develops an unlikely friendship, for lack of a better word, towards the end of the film. Really difficult and profound stuff to come to terms with and a brutal, yet important, display of what human beings are capable of.

Another interesting thing about Szpilman’s story is that no matter how integral his quick wits and musical talents are in regards to how he survived while so many others died, his story would have ended very early on had it not been for his outrageously good luck. Granted, a good deal of it ties into his notoriety as a pianist, but I really like that aspect because Szpilman doesn’t come off as living proof of deus ex machina, he’s not a hero, he’s just one of the lucky ones who didn’t get randomly picked out of a line and executed in broad daylight. And when you consider that Polanski himself is a Holocaust survivor who lost his mother to the Nazis, it becomes more than just a movie, it’s a history lesson and a dual memoir of sorts that feels far more personal than it does Hollywood.

But since it’s a Holocaust movie, the comparisons to Life is Beautiful and Schindler’s List in particular are bound to come up, and while I do need to revisit those two movies again before giving my two cents on how this compares, The Pianist is nevertheless a story that twice left me speechless. Yeah, I’ve already written a whole review on it so I’ve obviously found something to say, but as much as I can rant and ramble, there just aren’t enough words out there to sum this up in a nutshell. It’s an incredible story of survival, but it’s just as horrific and harrowing in ways that I can’t wrap my head around since I can’t write it off as fiction. One of those things you only need to see once, and once is more than enough to make you never forget it.

Can’t believe this lost Best Picture to Chicago of all things.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Ryan permalink
    March 11, 2011 1:20 pm

    I’ve had a copy of this movie sitting on my shelf for about 2 years…. guess it’s time I give it a watch

  2. March 11, 2011 1:26 pm

    I just re-watched this on AMC a week ago. Great movie indeed and I feel it’s quite a bit underrated. Good review Aiden!

    • March 14, 2011 12:34 pm

      Thanks! Yeah, it really didn’t get as much love as it deserved from the Academy that year. Nice that Polanski won, but this was totally the Best Pic of the nominees.

  3. March 11, 2011 2:37 pm

    Really is an amazing film that should have won Best Picture over that crap Chicago. Although Brody is great, I don’t quite think he should have won that Oscar, maybe could have gone to Cage or Nicholson. But for that year it was anybody’s guess. Great review my homie!

    • March 14, 2011 12:36 pm

      Thanks, man! The thing is that I actually enjoyed Chicago a lot more than I thought I would, but this is nevertheless in a whole ‘nother league. And I’m a big fan of Nicholson in About Schmidt and DDL as Bill the Butcher, but it’s hard to say who really deserved it that year. Still, not complaining that it went to Brody. That was a pretty boss move on the Academy’s part and he also gave one hell of a speech. Too bad he hasn’t really done anything of value since.

  4. Hal permalink
    March 11, 2011 4:32 pm

    The Pianist > Schindler’s List.

  5. March 13, 2011 1:18 pm

    Great review. The Best Picture for 2002 will always be a great mystery to me. Chicago over The Pianist, Gangs of New York, and Spirited Away (should have been a nominee)?

    • March 14, 2011 1:04 pm

      Thanks! And you’re right, Spirited Away totally should have been a nominee, same goes for Adaptation. There were some good ones that year, strange how they settled on Chicago of all things as the best of the bunch.

  6. March 13, 2011 9:36 pm

    Can’t read this…it’s on my list of flicks to see this year, though, so soon enough, I hope.

  7. Smally permalink
    March 14, 2011 2:07 pm

    Just saw this last week and what a powerhouse of a movie! I watched it on my phone and it still made quite an impact. First Polanski film for me (I think) and makes me want to check out all his other stuff. I’m still thinking about the movie; love when a film really leaves a mark on you like that.

    • March 14, 2011 2:14 pm

      Yeah, this one’s a hard puppy to shake. Not sure what other Polanski movies are on Netflix Instant, but if you can see Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby, I say go for those.

  8. March 16, 2011 5:53 pm

    Never seen this film but have seen this youtube clip more than enough times to appreciate Brodie’s true acting talent (watch the whole thing… it’s totally nuts)


    • March 16, 2011 6:52 pm

      Lol. The weird thing is that video is EXACTLY like this movie, possibly even better.

  9. March 19, 2011 3:02 am

    It’s a hard watch, for sure, but worth it. I think I like this film just a bit more than Life is Beautiful and Shindler’s List because its scale is much smaller, simply following one man’s journey through the entire pain and suffering of the Holocaust.

    I think you hit on the key problem with all these films: its hard to even begin to comprehend what actually happened during the Holocaust.

    There’s a fantastic old documentary called Night and Fog which is the single most important film about the Holocaust. It’s a hard watch, containing some of the most horrific images I’ve ever seen, but one I think everyone should see.

    • March 21, 2011 1:07 pm

      Just put Night and Fog on my Netflix queue, thanks for the heads up on that.

      And the thing that’s always bugged me a bit about Schindler’s List in comparison to every Holocaust movie is Oscar Schindler’s whole “I could have saved one more!” speech at the end. That’s when it started feeling like Hollywood. Can’t say much else though, been a long time since I’ve seen it. I hear ya’ though, this one felt very personal.


  1. The Pianist (2002) – What the Hell Should I Watch on NETFLIX?

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