Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4
Wouldn't you think that Roman Polanski would want to make a
movie about his own life? He was no pampered product of a
preppie film school but, having been born (in 1933) to Polish-
Jewish parents, he had a terrifying childhood. His mother died in
a Nazi concentration camp when Roman was eight. He escaped
from the Krakow ghetto before its liquidation and wandered about
gaining refuge with a number of Catholic families. He was used
by German soldiers for target practice. Ducking bullets from the
brutal occupying force must have given him the obsession with
fear, a preoccupation shown in such works as "Rosemary's
Baby," "Macbeth," and (uh oh) "The Ninth Gate."
Not wanting to be so egotistical as to display his own memoirs
he borrowed those of Wladyslaw Szpilman, one of the world's
great pianists in his day. Szpilman is not the Superman sort of
hero that movies usually portray but one who simply wanted to
remain alive and who, powerless to save Gotham, instead
depended on the kindness of strangers for his own survival.
Szpilman's story is a tragic one albeit one with a bittersweet
ending. In the hands of Polanski-who allegedly interviewed over
1,400 applicants for the lead role and wisely chose Adrien Brody,
"The Pianist," which is the first movie that Polanski made in his
native country in forty years, is a spellbinder.
Polanski, like Costa-Gavras (whose film "Amen" evokes the
horrors of the Holocaust without displaying the obligatory and
numbing pile-up of bodies) but unlike Tim Blake Nelson (whose
"The Grey Zone" takes us right into the bowels of hell), opts out of
showing us the scenes of massive death we've encountered so
many times over the past decades in other Holocaust works. His
focus is on the title character himself; in fact, for a stretch of
some thirty or forty minutes, Adrien Brody is virtually alone on the
screen in a performance that reminds us Tom Hanks's incredible
one-man role in Robert Zemeckis's "Cast Away."
"The Pianist" opens in 1939, six years after the accession of
Hitler in Germany, when the Nazi invasion of Poland sparked the
entrance of England and France into the war. The German
occupation forces lay down a steady stream of interdictions on
the Polish Jews, forbidding them to walk in the park or even on the
sidewalk at the risk of being severely beaten. A wall is built to
enclose a ghetto into which all Jews are required to move, When
the Germans then begin forcing the Jews onto trains leading to
the concentration camp at Treblinka, Szpilman's parents are sent
off but Wladislaw escapes. The heart of the film is the pianist's
desperate attempt to remain alive as he trudges from one
abandoned building to another, at times helped by members of the
Polish Underground. Adrien Brody gets ample chance to sparkle
as a man, formerly of dignity and renown as a musician, who is
reduced to a quivering shape from jaundice, fever, and fear.
Having lost thirty pounds for the role, Brody could pass for a
victim of the Nazi atrocities against Jews, emaciated, running
through just about every emotion an actor is required to portray.
The most impressive scene occurs near the conclusion as
Wladislaw, certain that he is to die by the hand of a German
officer who discovers him in an attic, must charm the obviously
cultured officer with his keyboard skills.
Paced by Polanski with restraint which only strengthens the
power of the scenes of overt violence, "The Pianist" not only
affords Brody the strong possbiility of an Oscar nomination but
continues Polanski's reputation as a film maker who can evoke
audience fears not simply from stories of the supernatural but from
the all-too-frequent horrors that arise from our own, civilized world.
Copyright © 2002 Harvey Karten