The Pianist (15)
The horror of the Holocaust has been shown in many films, notably in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Claude Lanzmann’s epic Shoah, Renais’ Night and Fog and Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice. Yet Roman Polanski’s version of the true-life story of Warsaw pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) could well be the most heart-rending of them all.
Casual violence exists alongside hope and humanity as the systematic slaughter of millions of Polish Jews is seen through the eyes of concert pianist Wladyslaw, a young man plucked from the bosom of his family and forced to endure the worst of life under the Nazi jackboot. Driven from their homes, forced to witness the wholesale (and utterly random) murder of friends and neighbours, the Szpilman family is first sent to the ghetto and then deported to the death camps. Only Wladyslaw escapes, helped by other Jews selected to live by the Nazi authorities, surviving in a freezing safe house overlooking the high walls of the ghetto.
Like Schindler’s List, much of the power of The Pianist comes from the unflinching view of the horrors on show. Polanski is explicit in his depiction of race hate and, like Spielberg’s epic, his film is all the more memorable because of it. Dreadful moments that remain engraved on the brain include the point blank shooting of a young woman because she dares to ask a question, and the merciless mass murder of a family at dinner – arbitrarily chosen for execution and herded into the street to be shot. When a wheelchair-bound old man cannot follow, he is simply thrown to his death from an upstairs window. The Szpilmans, themselves having dinner in a house across the street, can only watch in utter terror.
Later Polanski shifts his attention to the Polish uprising, when pistols smuggled in bags of potatoes give the Jews a chance to fight back against the Nazis. It is during the chaos and confusion of the second uprising that he emerges from his hideaway and attempts to move on.
Brody, seen previously in The Thin Red Line, Summer of Sam and Liberty Heights, is superb as the hero at the centre of the tale, and fully deserves an Oscar. He undergoes an emotional and physical transformation from middle-class boy to haggard survivor, and the film’s horror and pain is told through his anguished eyes. There are also fine supporting performances from Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman, as his parents, and Thomas Kretschmann as the humanitarian Wehrmacht officer who offers him food, warmth and hope in a desert of anti-Semitism.
A mammoth tale of humanity versus inhumanity, love versus hate, and the burning spirit of survival, The Pianist is a violent, brutish, cruel but ultimately uplifting story, and one that remains undiminished by the passage of time. The Holocaust will never fail to appal, but stories like Szpilman’s help to salve the still raw wounds – even after almost 60 years.
Star rating: *****