The Pianist (2002)
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.