"The Pianist" is the film Roman Polanski may have been born to make: a great movie on a powerful, essential subject--the Holocaust years in Poland--directed with such artistry and skill that, as we watch, the barriers of the screen seem to melt away. Our vision is renewed, our emotions reawakened.
Telling the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a young Polish-Jewish classical pianist who lived through the WWII Nazi invasion in Warsaw, Polanski makes us feel, definitively, what it must have been like to live as a Jew under the Nazis during the Holocaust, to experience the myriad insults and injuries that gradually escalated into the annihilating brutality of Nazi massacres and concentration camps.
"The Pianist," like most of Polanski's best film work ("Chinatown," "Repulsion"), is a nightmare--a voyage into Hell and (almost) to the end of the night. But it's a convincing nightmare, one based so scrupulously on fact (on Szpilman's own memoir, first published in 1946) and filmed with such strict lack of sentimentality and such mastery of narrative moviemaking that Szpilman's and Polanski's vision quickly merges with our own. The film begins shortly after the Nazi invasion in September 1939 with 27-year-old Szpilman raptly playing a Chopin nocturne for the local radio station until the program is cut short by bombs and gunfire outside. It carries him through to the Liberation and slightly after. During that time, we see the pianist gradually reduced from a brilliant, somewhat haughty young man (played with deceptively cool intensity by Adrien Brody), an egoist secure in his gifts and part of a loving family, to a sick, frightened, seemingly dehumanized fugitive, scuttling from one bombed-out building to another, stumbling over corpses, a step ahead of killing squads.
So hellish are the climactic war scenes of "The Pianist"--shot in a city we see progressively consumed and reduced to rubble by the street warfare--that the movie re-establishes Polanski's old credentials as one of the screen's true masters of terror and suspense. Yet this is a horror magnified by the fact that it's true. The film's events, which take us step by excruciating step through Szpilman's descent from a world of men and angels to the world of beasts and assassins, come almost entirely out of Szpilman's memory and the historical record and not the considerable dramatic imaginations of Polanski or screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("The Dresser" and "Taking Sides").
Fiction could hardly be more terrifying. Polanski shows us, through the protagonist's eyes, his harmonious household--Szpilman's genteel mother (Maureen Lipman), upright father (Frank Finlay), combative brother Henryk (Ed Stoppard) and playful sisters Regina and Halina (Julia Rayner and Jessica Kate Meyer)--and makes us watch them progressively stripped of dignity and possessions and finally exiled into the walled Warsaw ghetto. There, the Szpilmans, like the rest of Warsaw's Jews, become fragile playthings of Nazi soldiers who kill them at whim, tossing one wheelchair-bound old man from a fourth-floor window when he fails to stand and salute during a nighttime roust. Finally, the pianist's family is torn ruthlessly from him.
For the rest of the movie--which irresistibly recalls such sustained Polanski essays in horror and confinement as 1965's "Repulsion" and 1976's "The Tenant"--Szpilman is an orphan locked in a subterranean maze of temporary safe houses and hidden locked rooms. Rescued from the ghetto and the camps by his angelic cellist-friend Dorota (Emilia Fox) and various members of the Resistance, he is sealed away like a trapped rat, forced to remain preternaturally quiet (even when a tempting piano is within reach), constantly in fear of betrayal. From high windows, this impotent prisoner-voyeur watches the defiant rebellion and subsequent annihilation of the Warsaw ghetto prisoners he left behind and later a bloody resistance assault on a hospital and the catastrophic street war in Warsaw.
Ironies abound. All around the pianist, chaos rages and people die, while he hides, falls sick and nearly starves, and yet Szpilman is one of the "lucky" ones, saved only because of his fame as an artist and his coterie of admiring friends. Such are the fortunes of war, as Polanski reveals and remembers them--until at the end, straight from Szpilman's memoirs, we get a confrontation of awesome emotion, involving a German soldier, Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann). That scene, straight from life and the single greatest temptation to sentimentality in a movie that ruthlessly avoids it, becomes the keynote of "The Pianist's" artistry and theme: a ringing, unforgettable statement on the binding effect of great art in a world blighted with hatred and murder.
Polanski's trademark subjective camera has rarely been deployed with such brilliance, discretion and precision. The entire cast--English, American, Polish and German--acts selflessly, beautifully. The realization of wartime Warsaw is as searing and convincing as a dream from which you cannot awaken. "The Pianist," celebrating art, superbly achieves it as well.
Szpilman's book was long banned by Poland's postwar Communist government; Polanski, who lived these years as a young Jewish boy in Krakow, found the memoir in 1999. It was the right match. Polanski's critical reputation has fallen on bad times since his '70s sex and legal scandals. But "The Pianist" is a masterpiece good enough to redeem an entire career.
"The Pianist" brings us face to face with a historical record presented on screen so many times it may seem to have lost some of its force. Here, the force returns, but it is a mark of this film's singular genius that it won't necessarily make you cry. Instead, chillingly, the Holocaust becomes concise, inarguable, unforgettable. "The Pianist" is a brave, epic work, even stronger than "Schindler's List," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and almost all comparable dramas of the Holocaust--because it makes us live, with the pianist, through the hell from which only music saved him and only fortune saved us.
4 stars (out of 4) The Pianist'
Directed by Roman Polanski; written by Ronald Harwood, based on the memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman; photographed by Pawel Edelman; edited by Herve de Luze; production designed by Allan Starski; music by Wojciech Kilar; visual effects supervisor Christian Kunstler; produced by Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde. In English and German, with English subtitles. A Focus Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:28. MPAA rating: R (for violence and language).
Wladyslaw Szpilman....Adrien Brody
Captain Wilm Hosenfeld....Thomas Kretschmann
Szpilman's Father....Frank Finlay
Szpilman's Mother....Maureen Lipman
Regina....Julia Rayner Halina....Jessica Kate Meyer
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.