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Earlier today, I viewed the last of the 2002 Best Picture nominees...
(based on the memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman)
Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Maureen Lipman, Frank Finlay
3 wins, including Best Director and Best Actor (Brody)
Based on the autobiography by noted Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Pianist relates his unthinkable struggle for survival as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. In 1939, when the SS first enter Poland, Szpilman and his family are subjected to greater and greater humiliations in the form of official decrees that essentially ban Jews from leading normal lives. Soon, they are imprisoned inside a Jewish ghetto with hundreds of thousands of others, starving and desperate.
As crowds of Jews are being forcibly shoved onto cattle trains headed for the Treblinka concentration camp, Szpilman is saved at the last minute by a family friend. He spends the next few years scrambling from place to place, hiding from Nazi officers with a little help from members of the Jewish uprising and the Polish resistance. As the war rages on around him, he witnesses all sorts of inhumane atrocities, managing to barely maintain sanity by playing imaginary pianos.
I previously commented on the bleakness of The Hours but it is now evident that the bleakness crown sits well atop the head of The Pianist. The first act of this powerful Holocaust drama presents the slow descent of Warsaw's Jewish population into a horrendously debilitating predicament. First, they are limited in their wealth. Then, they are denied access to parks and certain restaurants. Then, they are forced to wear armbands, publicly labelling themselves as Jews. These scenes are carefully presented one by one, ominously capturing the incremental debasement of Nazi policy, intended to lessen the incidence of resistance. Each demeaning decree is such a small step from the last that the injustice is almost unnoticeable - kind of like the growth of a fingernail. Nobody suspects that the conclusion will be fatal, so before they know it, the Szpilman family are in line waiting to be sent to their deaths.
Although the first third of the film is devoted to these unfolding events that affect the entire Jewish population of the city, the rest of the film is a very personal journey of survival. As people come in and out of Szpilman's life to either help or hurt him, it is painfully clear that he is on his own. Despite his incredible survival instinct, however, he is a somewhat passive character, a perfectly understandable trait given his circumstances. He requires the kindness of others plus a bit of luck in order to survive. Many battles and uprisings occur in his vicinity while he attempts to remain inconspicuous. Director Roman Polanski accentuates this point by allowing us only to see these battles from a distance, just as Szpilman does, watching the violence through a window. Still, once all of Szpilman's contacts have inevitably abandoned him, passiveness is no longer an option and he finds a way to keep going, spurred on by the memory of music.
It is certainly a tad disheartening to concede that humans are capable of inflicting this sort of blindly stupid cruelty on each other and The Pianist is such a simply told story that this message is so easily accessible. Depressing, perhaps, although the film balances its evil characters with a fair number of brave and selfless ones as well. In fact, the point is also made that you cannot always be sure of who is good and who is bad. Szpilman suffers due to neglect from a man who is supposedly working with the resistance, while at another time, he is aided by a Nazi officer.
As Szpilman, Adrien Brody (pictured) is superb in his breakout role, reportedly studying piano technique fiercely prior to shooting. His playing is definitely realistic despite the fact that the actual recordings (and some of the close-up shots of hands) were provided by classical Polish pianist Janusz Olejniczak. It is difficult to single out any other performance, partly because Brody is so prominent and partly because the supporting actors are equally impressive. So, instead you will have to trust me when I say that the rest of the cast support Brody wonderfully. Truly, the casting is spectacular.
The images in The Pianist are unmistakably powerful. Undoubtedly, however, I am more deeply affected by this subject matter due to my own Jewish heritage. I imagine it is something akin to the way an African-American must feel when watching a film about slavery. There is an inexplicable affinity in witnessing this persecution knowing that your own ancestors suffered similar adversity. Having said that, though, the film is still required to be well-made and avoid any trivialising of the issue. And on those counts, The Pianist succeeds.