'Pianist' takes journey of endurance, hope
Seattle Times movie critic
For most of Roman Polanski's wrenching Holocaust drama, we hear little or no music — a deliberate omission all the more striking in a film called "The Pianist." Only at the end does Polanski let us revel in the beauty of the music, after a long and devastating journey, and it's a glorious moment. A soul has not been broken by evil and misery; art has endured.
The phrase "triumph of the human spirit" has been uttered so often it's become a hideous cliché; but Wladyslaw Szpilman's story of wartime survival is exactly what the words were minted for. Szpilman was a young concert pianist and composer in Poland before World War II. On Sept. 23, 1939, he was playing a Chopin nocturne on Polish radio when the Luftwaffe bombed the Warsaw station.
Six years later, he played the same piece when the station began transmitting again — the lone survivor of his Jewish family. He wrote a memoir in 1946, which was suppressed at the time but republished worldwide in 1999. Szpilman, who lived his entire life in Warsaw (though he traveled the world as a pianist), died in 2000 at 89, shortly before filming began.
Polanski, a child in Warsaw at the time of the bombings, seems to have been waiting his entire career to tell this story. "The Pianist" is beautifully made; shot in burnished browns and icy blues by cinematographer Pawel Edelman. Ronald Harwood's screenplay is economical and unsentimental, and Polanski himself perfectly understands the value of silence — horror, in the form of a dead child lying in a wet street, or a Nazi savagely beating an old man, has more impact with a whisper than a shout.
Adrien Brody, as Szpilman, undergoes a harrowing transformation; changing from a confident, ever-so-slightly arrogant young artist to an emaciated wraith, scrabbling for food with trembling hands and desperate eyes.
"The Pianist" takes us, step by step, through his journey. Szpilman moved with his family to the Warsaw Ghetto (where Nazis rounded up the city's 360,000 Jews), then narrowly missed boarding a train to an extermination camp. Helped by a network of friends and resistance fighters, he was moved from place to place, hiding in wall cubbyholes or empty flats.
We don't get much of a sense of Szpilman pre-war, or much discussion of what music means to him — obviously Chopin nocturnes pale by comparison with survival. (Early in the movie, he plays with pleasure, but Brody hints at a certain businesslike detachment.) But there's a telling moment midway through, as Szpilman finds himself alone in a clandestine flat with a piano.
Warned that he must be quiet, he sits at the piano and plays a concert piece — his fingers an inch above the keyboard, the music audible only in his head. His taut, pinched face relaxes slightly; a terrible hunger has been eased.
Music turns out to be Szpilman's savior, quite literally, in a beautifully played scene late in the film between the pianist and a German officer. And it sustains the audience as well, with a final concert played with melancholy joy and ardor; it's like food for the soul.
"The Pianist" is a devastating story of survival, and a tribute to the redemptive powers of art.