It is my sad duty to come to this review, for I may be the one person who is not in awe of this film. After seeing all the advertisements, the various awards ceremonies, including the now famous kiss that Oscar winner, Adrian Brody, gave Halle Berry, and all of the commercials for the release of the DVD, I was prepared to be swept into a realm that has previously been the bastion of Steven Spielberg's, Schindler's List. I expected much and came away with little.
The Pianist tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrian Brody), a Jewish concert pianist, in the days before, during and after World War II, in Poland. His livelihood at a radio station in Warsaw, playing compositions by Frederic Chopin, was slowly strangled by the Nazis as they rounded up Jews herding them into the infamous Warsaw ghetto. Szpilman and his family; mother, father, a brother and two sisters, had lived up to 1939, in circumstances that were upper middle class. The first half of the film conveys all of the horrors that the Jews were subjected to before they were shipped out of the city in boxcars for concentration camps.
The second half of the film is the more interesting and if it can be said, the film comes 'alive' with possibilities and complexities, both with the story and the characterizations that are being realized before our eyes. During this time, Szpilman has lost his entire family to the camps. He alone has been saved at the station by a friend, another Jew who is one of the police working for the Nazis. After his narrow escape, he lives in various secret apartments and the ruins of war ravaged Warsaw, until his eventual rescue with the incoming Soviet forces.
At this time, he makes the acquaintance of a German officer, Captain Wilm (Thomas Kretschman) at an abandoned house. Szpilman has sought refuge and food and doesn't realize that Wilm has allocated the house for his headquarters. What a story there was to be had with this tale! Instead, we are given bare snippets of what occured and the eventual outcome for both men.
Many have stated that The Pianist is a companion piece to Schindler's List, but I must beg to differ. In the latter, because of the documentary styling of the film, the atrocities and actions committed take on a 'you are there' aspect, subjecting the viewer to a seemingly more creditable framing of history. The former, from the opening frames, betrayed a sense of trying to find its' way through a myriad of possibilities. This reviewer was put in mind of the 1978 television miniseries, Holocaust, that starred Meryl Streep and Rosemary Harris. The two films offer similar parallels, with The Pianist having a television movie-of -the week-backlot quality about it.
The side characters in The Pianist come and go all too briefly, leaving the audience without firm convictions or much feeling for them. Of course, this does not happen with Brody or Kretschman's roles. We are drawn into them, instead of watching a parade passing by. This film provides a scenario that wants us to believe that above all else, love of a subject or thing is tantamount to survival in terrible situations. This I do not deny. The power of positive thinking is a wonderful thing. Brody portrays this with little or no problem, and Kretschman is stunning in the few moments of screentime that he has in his possession, as he waxes poetic with his portrayal of the Nazi with a heart and soul. The scene when Szpilman plays for Wilm, knowing that one slip could mean his life, is breathtaking. Personally, I feel that this is the scene that won Brody the Oscar, for it captures the complete essence of the sweet hold we have on life and what we will do to make it our handmaiden.
Roman Polanski has done his homework, but he has left us without a drawing into the meat of the matter. Various acts of vicious inhumanity are aptly drawn for our perusal and they are accurate as any that one would be able to find in the history books on this subject. Instead, they lack conviction and seem interspersed for shock value, as though they are on a treadmill waiting to glide past on a stage from A to Z. This was never the case with Schindler's List. The Pianist does seem to be overly long, and while Ronald Harwood does an Oscar worthy job with the material, he needed to tighten the reins, instead of giving his screenplay its' head.
What is strangely ironic about this film is the lack of piano music that does not permeate it. Yes, in the beginning, the glorious music of Chopin escapes, and is met in tandem again at end of the film in the concert hall, and when Szpilman plays for his life. Yet somehow, useage of Chopin's works would have seemed to be warranted throughout. A minor note, yet still...
This is not to say that Szpilman's story was not harrowing or wrought with episodic cliffhanger outcomes, but somehow they never quite captured me. This is not meant to discredit and it is quite frustrating to realize so much more could have been done and yet wasn't by the assembled company.
The Pianist offers an insight into another facet of the Holocaust; another human story frought with horrors and determination to survive at all costs. The suffering, the angst, and the rising from the ashes are all guaranteed harbingers that will continue to address a most distressing and inhumane time. This film cannot be labeled as a waste of time, for it definitely has a story to tell. The sad fact though, remains that it could have been portrayed in a more calculated fashion.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.