Pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s experience during the Holocaust allowed director Roman Polanski to negotiate his own memories of war-torn Poland and channel them onto the screen—explicitly at least—for the first time in his almost 50-year career. For the Polanski fan, The Pianist may count as a disappointment of sorts in that its first half is burdened by a near tiresome conventionality one doesn’t expect from one of cinema’s most delirious madmen. Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of Szpilman’s memories is burdened by incident, lazy exposition and one gentle though particularly obvious allusion to Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice, of course). During its last hour, though, The Pianist achieves something that approaches near transcendence. Polanski photographs death in the Warsaw ghetto with a remarkable distance that immediately separates the film from showier Holocaust films like Schindler’s List and The Grey Zone. As Wladyslaw (Adrian Brody) and his family approach the trains that will take them to their deaths, the young musician turns to his sister and utters with sad regret, “I wish I knew you better.” It is precisely at this moment that a twist of fate saves Wladyslaw’s life and separates him from his family. Polanski catalogs each and every moment that propels Wladyslaw that much closer to freedom with an elegant absurdism. With the help of German reactionaries, Wladyslaw is moved from one hideout to the next. Polanski perpetually keeps the gangly Brody in center frame, emphasizing Wladyslaw’s isolation via a series of startling long shots. More impressive, perhaps, is the devastating yet sober fashion with which Polanski repeatedly teases Wladyslaw with music—he watches a woman play the cello and, in one hideout, resists the urge to play the piano he sleeps next to every night. As cinematographer Pawel Edelman’s sunburnt photography grows progressively more ashen, Polanski’s camera moves that much closer to Brody’s face. When Wladyslaw walks through a completely devastated ghetto there is a sense that he is the last remaining soul on the face of the earth. All of this builds to a divine moment in which a ray of light falls gently on piano keys and a mouse teases a lion with the sound of music. It is here that hope and the possibility for goodness springs eternal. The music, all the while, makes the hurt that much easier to take.
- Roman Polanski
- Ronald Harwood
- Adrien Brody, Daniel Caltagirone, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Julia Rayner, Jessica Kate Meyer
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