Polanski’s ‘Pianist’ plays haunting tale of sorrow in the Warsaw Ghetto

Upon exiting the theater after watching Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” a friend turned to me and said that the film “made ‘Schindler’s List’ look like Disney.” That assessment, though meant as a hyperbole, is eerily close to reality. “The Pianist” offers no long sequences of slow-motion screaming and terror-stricken faces accompanied by the lush orchestral compositions of the likes of John Williams. Instead, it offers those same panic-stricken faces with a stark, detached and at times almost matter-of-fact approach, ultimately making them more haunting after the film ends. Polanski offers a brutal and dark account of the lives of Polish Jews during the Nazi occupation through the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist who muddled through the nightmare and lived to tell his story.

Adrien Brody plays Szpilman, a gifted pianist who lives with his family in Warsaw during the second World War. The film opens just days before the Polish capital falls to the Nazis, with Szpilman playing Chopin in a radio studio as the neighborhood is bombarded by German artillary. Â

From there, the movie runs through the entire war until the Germans are expelled from Poland by the USSR. Szipilman sees his family shipped off to concentration camps and finally escapes the Warsaw Ghetto, surviving through the help of friends on the outside. For nearly two years, he eludes the Nazis by hiding in small apartments in Warsaw. While doing so, he witnesses the ghetto uprising in 1943, the Polish underground’s guerrilla war that followed, and, at length, the Soviet invasion.

Amidst these events, the film is peppered with unspeakably brutal acts on the part of the Nazis. Random acts of violence are spread throughout, presented with hardly any fanfare. The audience is put in with Szpilman from the onset; we only see what he sees, and we are forced to react to the atrocities like he does. There is no time for mourning. Nor is there room for sentiment in “The Pianist,” which is a highly personal film for Polanski. Having escaped from the Warsaw ghetto as a child, he is able to provide a vision of horror that is so strikingly real, it makes the audience an uncomfortable witness.

Like Szpilman, we are hit continuously by shot after shot of dead bodies lining streets, and killing without reason. For Polanski to spend time explaining a tragedy that is both cruel and almost unimaginable would be futile, since no explanation exists.

Brody’s performance highlights the odds and ends of what Szpilman went through with unfailing perfection. Brody makes Szpilman’s story poignant by delivering a low-brow and tempered portrayal, suffering quietly and dreaming of once again being able to play the piano for large audiences. His character often tries to detach himself from what is going on around him, despite being surrounded by family members who are caught between disbelief and panic and Nazi officers who seem inhuman.

Brody makes Szpilman’s world a perfect microcosm for the suffering of an entire people. He begins the film skeptical of the Nazi threat, concentrating instead on playing his instrument and flirting with Dorota (Emilia Fox). But as soon as he becomes a victim, Brody’s performance highlights the exasperated confusion in which Szpilman and his family are engulfed.

Polanski then changes his approach and makes his protagonist simply one of the numbers. His pain is shared by so many that it would seem unfair to single out his personal tragedy amidst all the desperation. The camera treats him with no more care than any of the nameless multitudes that try to survive in the ghetto; neither hero nor anti-hero, Szpilman is simply there, a common man with an eye for artistic beauty who finds himself in a world of death and destruction.

But Szpilman’s life remains the centerpiece of the story and as we are forced to face the harsh realities that he confronts, we are treated to a roller coaster ride that peaks at encroaching war and valleys as we watch his months of seclusion, locked in small apartments and forced to be silent or meet almost certain discovery. These moments of tense hiding are complemented by Chopin pieces for piano, which offer brief moments of artistic beauty. Without them, the movie would play simply like a documentary instead of a methodically orchestrated work of art where the only derivable pleasant feeling is the hope of Szpilman’s survival.

“The Pianist” stands as Roman Polanski’s best film since 1976’s “Chinatown.” The human impact of the film can be summarized by the comment of the German officer listening to Szpilman play the piano in one of the closing scenes: “How is it you can play the piano to such a level that my mind is unable to comprehend what I see and hear?” One could ask the same of Polanski, who has made a film that is every bit as harrowing and sorrowful as the subject matter it presents.