Top 100 Movie Review: No. 062: The Pianist (2002)

Ranked 062 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as May 2017).  Watched April 2020.

Cast: Adrien Brody (Wladyslaw Szpilman), Emilia Fox (Dorota), Michal Zebrowski (Jurek), Ed Stoppard (Henryk), Maureen Lipman (Mother), Frank Finlay (Father), Jessica Kate Meyer (Halina), Julia Rayner (Regina), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Wilm Hosenfeld)
Director: Roman Polanski
My rating: 9.5 / 10

In September 1939, Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a Polish-Jewish pianist who is playing live on the radio in Warsaw when the station is bombed during Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Later that night the Szpilman family rejoices when learning that Britain and France have declared war on Germany expecting a quick victory not knowing this wouldn’t help over over 5 years but they still have hope. Warsaw becomes part of the Nazi-controlled General Government within a month. Jews are soon facing restrictions like how many assets they can own, restrictions on working, then having to wear the Star of David armbands followed by humiliation on the streets and being refused service at restaurants.

By November 1940, Szpilman and his family are forced from their home into the overcrowded Warsaw Ghetto, where conditions only get worse. People starve, the guards are brutal, and starving children are abandoned in the streets.

One night the Szpilmans witness the brutal killing of an entire family in an apartment across the street during a round-up. The killing starts with throwing a handicapped elderly man from a balcony.

On 16 August 1942, Szpilman and his family are to be transported to Treblinka extermination camp as part of Operation Reinhard. But a friend in the Jewish Ghetto Police recognizes Władysław separating him from his family which saves his life, its the last time he sees his family as they are taken to a camp in a train. Władysław becomes a slave labourer, and learns of a coming Jewish revolt. He helps the resistance by smuggling weapons into the ghetto. Szpilman eventually manages to escape, and goes into hiding with help from a non-Jewish friend, Andrzej Bogucki, and his wife, Janina who he first meet on the day of the first bombing of the city.

In April 1943, Szpilman watches from his window as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which he aided, unfolds, and then ultimately fails after stiff resistance. After a neighbor discovers Szpilman in the flat, he is forced to flee to a second hiding place. The new room has a piano in it, but he is compelled to keep quiet, while beginning to get sick.

In August 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising there is an attack on the German building across the street from Szpilman’s hideout. Tank shells hit the apartment, forcing him to flee. Over the course of the following months, Warsaw is destroyed. Szpilman is left alone to search desperately for shelter and supplies among the ruins.

He eventually makes his way to a house where he finds a can of pickled cucumbers. While trying to open it, he is noticed by Wehrmacht officer Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), who learns that Szpilman is a pianist. He asks Szpilman to play on a grand piano in the house. The decrepit Szpilman manages to play Chopin’s “Ballade in G minor”. Hosenfeld lets Szpilman hide in the attic of the empty house. From here, he is regularly supplied with food by the German officer.

In January 1945, the Germans are retreating from the Red Army. Hosenfeld meets Władysław for the last time, promising he will listen to him on Polish Radio after the war. He gives Władysław his greatcoat to keep warm, and leaves without Władysław learning his name. In Spring 1945, former inmates of a Nazi concentration camp pass by a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp holding captured German soldiers and verbally abuse them. Hosenfeld, being one of the prisoners, overhears a released inmate lamenting over his former career as a violinist. He asks him whether he knows Władysław Szpilman, which he confirms, and Hosenfeld wishes him to beg Władysław, to return him favour and help him get released. Later the violinist and Szpilman reach the prisoners camp, but find it abandoned.

After the war, Władysław Szpilman is back at the Polish Radio, where he performs Chopin’s “Grand Polonaise brillante” to a large prestigious audience. An epilogue states that Szpilman died in 2000 at the age of 88, whereas Hosenfeld died in 1952, still in Soviet captivity.

What’s to Like
The intensity of many scenes, the historical accuracy of the story, the slow descent into  the holocaust, the best and worst of humanity on display.  The wordless scenes as we and Wladyslaw Szpilman watch the horrors.

What’s not to Like
Nothing it’s a great film.

Reviewing and watching any movie made by Roman Polanski is very difficult given he escaped a criminal charges in USA for statutory rape leaving that aside this is a stunning film, maybe more so given the Director is a holocaust survivor and the movie is based on the real life of another holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman who wrote his experiences almost immediately after World War II.

One thing that most people don’t seem to understand about the holocaust is how slowly and how many steps it took to come about.  The Jewish population where slowly boiled not believing the unbelievable rumours that came before the next step in the scheme to eradicate the undesirables’.

The greatest mistake of the Szpilman’s family was that as they were prosperous and seemingly secure they was not much to overly worry about so they decided not to go anywhere quote; “I’m not going anywhere”.

Wladyslaw is a man who was obviously a music prodigy and very intelligent has a certain aloofness to life around him.  More than once we hear him reassuring others that everything will turn out all right as he can’t imagine the horrors about to come.  He dresses better than others in the ghetto for a long time and imagines he can stare his family the worst but he can’t and on realising this it almost destroys him but very occasionally he hears music that keeps just a little bit of hope of spirit.

There is no victory in his survival, not when all whom he loved died but he does try to live his life after the war (not shown in the film).  Music is part of his soul and the thing that helped him live though the worst.

One of the best films I have ever had the pleasure of watching.

Academy Awards

  • Best Actor (Adrien Brody) – winner
  • Best Director (Roman Polanski) – winner
  • Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood) – winner
  • Best Picture – nominee
  • Best Cinematography (Pawel Edelman) – nominee
  • Best Costume Design (Anna B. Sheppard) – nominee
  • Best Film Editing (Hervé de Luze) – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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