Monday Editor’s Pick: The Pianist (2002)

by on May 1, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon May 7 at 7:30 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]

MoMA celebrates the 10th anniversary of powerhouse company Focus Features thru May 20. And it’s time to forgive Adrien Brody for ruining your Oscar ballot a decade ago.


Charles Taylor for Salon:

In “The Pianist,” Polanski is saying what he has long wanted to say, confronting the roots of his own preoccupations and obsessions, and he allows nothing to get in the way. It’s his most emotionally direct film, at times even a brutally blunt film.The film has the simultaneous feel of being observed as it happens and of springing from a complete vision.
We all know about the horrors the European Jews faced. But no movie has ever presented them in quite this way. Like the dead-rotting face of Mrs. Bates subliminally imprinted on her son Norman at the end of “Psycho,” a death’s-head grin seemed to emerge on the very celluloid of pictures like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.” The black humor of those films was without compassion. The grim hopelessness of Polanski’s humor was the coping strategy of someone whose life had twice been marked by pure evil. You could understand where it came from and still be repulsed by it. There is no such distancing in “The Pianist.” Here Polanski is almost frighteningly open to the portrayal of inexplicable evil. At times I felt myself pulling away from the screen, as if Polanski were milking my response. When Nazis pick ghetto Jews out of a milling crowd and force them to dance, Polanski shows us a cripple on crutches falling to the ground. Polanski rubs our face in the obviousness of the cruelty, and it’s grating; that man seems doubly humiliated. And yet were Polanski to shrink from the worst it would seem inappropriately prim. He might almost be answering here for the grotesqueries his own films have relished.
“The Pianist” took the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival but almost immediately, the critical word coming out of Cannes was that it was Polanski’s most conventional movie, something like an old-fashioned well-made studio film of the ’40s. Is it the directness of the film that generated that response? Whatever the reason, classifying “The Pianist” as conventional doesn’t take into account how the film proceeds from the unblinking depiction of Nazi atrocities into territory which is artistically very risky, and how Polanski complicates the righteous anger the film stirs up in us. I think Polanski is attempting to put us in the shoes of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) by making the events of the movie so direct and overwhelming that they cannot be easily sorted out. He makes us feel but does not always tell us how or even what to feel. Nothing in the first half of “The Pianist” prepares you for the audacity of what comes after Wladyslaw, having been spared the death camps, lives as a worker in the ghetto before escaping and, with the help of various members of the underground resistance, hiding in a series of unoccupied apartments. In the last hour of the film, Polanski and Brody come close to making a great silent comedy about the Holocaust.


Chris Chang for Film Comment:

Roman Polanski, France, 2002 Polanski wanted to make this film so badly for so long you can feel it. One senses it hasn’t been gestating so much as it’s been festering, boiling, building momentum like a runaway train. And, sure enough, more moments into the opening sequence – a tony piano recital in a state radio station – everything explodes. The film’s primary setting is the Warsaw Ghetto from its creation to the Nazi withdrawal. (Polanski escaped from the Krakow Ghetto at age seven. This is the first film he’s made in Poland in 40 years.) The production design is mind-boggling: everything drips with authenticity as the audience is made privy to the plight and POV of the Jews. The deterioration of “quality of life” is charted through architectural space, beginning in the splendor of comfortable bourgeois interiors, and descending stage by stage as the captives are herded to increasingly dismal locations, caught in a gigantic mechanism designed to obliterate them – so much human grist for a mill of ideological insanity. Frequently (and completely randomly) people are simply shot in the head.
It can be argued that this is one of Polanski’s most straightfoward films. He’s not relying on his signature warped locations and psychologists – but that’s because he doesn’t have to. Conspiracy has always been a thematic linchpin for his best work, and here, the subject matter couldn’t be more attuned to his focus on conspiration. Polanski just needed to tap into it – and maybe a few childhood memories. In the process, he’s created a monument to the indestructibility of the human spirit.


Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

Roman Polanski’s 2002 film about classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jew who managed to survive the Warsaw ghetto, won the top prize at Cannes and an Oscar for best director, and it’s easy to understand why: Polanski, himself a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, is so authoritative in showing us what life there was like that this film makes more conventional heart tuggers like Schindler’s List shrivel to insignificance. He appears to follow Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of Szpilman’s autobiography with scrupulous thoroughness, as well as with the special patience that it takes to show a passive and mainly unheroic victim surviving. All of Polanski’s films reflect the grimness of his war experience in one way or another, and this feature serves to clarify some of the emotions and attitudes found in the others. The results are masterful, admirably unsentimental, and never boring.



J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

Roman Polanski’s world is predicated on violent absurdity, and in the first few moments of his new movie, The Pianist, war breaks out with alarming matter-of-factness. Giving a piano recital of a Chopin nocturne in a Warsaw radio station, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is barely distracted by some agitation in the control booth. The sound of bombs shatters the glass, but the composed performer keeps playing until he is literally blown off his stool—the first of a series of precise notes that smash one illusion after another. Polanski’s vividly detailed representation of the Warsaw Ghetto, re-created on a German soundstage, is unprecedented in its emphasis on class, crazies, and especially children.
Late in the war, Szpilman returns to the rubble of the now empty ghetto, wandering through an empty house clutching an unopened tin of pickles that he has scavenged. Barely recognizable as human, he is discovered by Hosenfeld, who interrogates him and orders him to play. That there is a grand piano on the premises goes beyond surrealism. This real-life encounter is as disorienting as the shot Luis Buñuel couldn’t include in Los Olvidados—the proposed track through a wretched Mexico City shantytown to reveal a symphony orchestra performing in a vacant lot.

David Edelstein for Slant:

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist has a classical detachment that keeps the cruelty at a distance—yet, paradoxically, heightens it. The movie is grueling, for long stretches wordless, yet nothing in its nearly two-and-a-half hours feels unnecessarily prolonged. Polanski and his screenwriter, the English playwright Ronald Harwood, keep the scenes short and severe, like blackout sketches. The Pianist is classical in its restraint but radical in its perspective—the Holocaust viewed from an eerie, frozen side angle. Like Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976), it’s about being stuck in one’s own head and going quietly mad, only this time the external demons are real, the threat of discovery ubiquitous. Szpilman is paralyzed as he watches from the window of an apartment on the outside of the ghetto as the uprising begins and the German tanks converge on the wall—and, a month later, as the defeated Jews hurl themselves out of windows or are lined up and machine-gunned. In 1976, Lina Wertmüller made a movie called Seven Beauties that presented (with vulgar bravura) a concentration-camp survivor as the ultimate moral sellout, but that’s not what Polanski is up to here. The Pianist suggests that the instinct for survival transcends moral categories. We don’t want to judge Szpilman—and we have no right to.
A great and moral movie—the best of 2002, and one of the most indelible Holocaust films ever made.


Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

An adaptation of concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoirs about his experiences in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Polanski’s cinematic return to the ravaged world of his childhood starts inauspiciously, lumbered with the clichés of Ronald Harwood’s script. The actors (mostly from British TV) who play the musician’s doomed family squabble to order about how to react to events. Once Szpilman is left behind, however, and forced to hide in empty apartments in the ever more unrecognisable city, his struggle simply to survive is rendered with increasing subtlety, and Brody’s lead performance steadily comes into its own. Old-fashioned in both visual and narrative style and in its overall restraint, the film clearly benefits from the director’s first-hand knowledge of the territory.


Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

Pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s experience during the Holocaust allowed director Roman Polanski to negotiate his own memories of war-torn Poland and channel them onto the screen—explicitly at least—for the first time in his almost 50-year career. During its last hour, The Pianist achieves something that approaches near transcendence. Polanski photographs death in the Warsaw ghetto with a remarkable distance that immediately separates the film from showier Holocaust films like Schindler’s List and The Grey Zone. As Wladyslaw (Adrian Brody) and his family approach the trains that will take them to their deaths, the young musician turns to his sister and utters with sad regret, “I wish I knew you better.” It is precisely at this moment that a twist of fate saves Wladyslaw’s life and separates him from his family. Polanski catalogs each and every moment that propels Wladyslaw that much closer to freedom with an elegant absurdism. With the help of German reactionaries, Wladyslaw is moved from one hideout to the next. Polanski perpetually keeps the gangly Brody in center frame, emphasizing Wladyslaw’s isolation via a series of startling long shots. More impressive, perhaps, is the devastating yet sober fashion with which Polanski repeatedly teases Wladyslaw with music—he watches a woman play the cello and, in one hideout, resists the urge to play the piano he sleeps next to every night. As cinematographer Pawel Edelman’s sunburnt photography grows progressively more ashen, Polanski’s camera moves that much closer to Brody’s face. When Wladyslaw walks through a completely devastated ghetto there is a sense that he is the last remaining soul on the face of the earth. All of this builds to a divine moment in which a ray of light falls gently on piano keys and a mouse teases a lion with the sound of music. It is here that hope and the possibility for goodness springs eternal. The music, all the while, makes the hurt that much easier to take.


A.O. Scott for the New York Times:

Polanski presents Szpilman’s story with bleak, acid humor and with a ruthless objectivity that encompasses both cynicism and compassion. When death is at once so systematically and so capriciously dispensed, survival becomes a kind of joke. By the end of the film, Szpilman, brilliantly played by Adrien Brody, comes to resemble one of Samuel Beckett’s gaunt existential clowns, shambling through a barren, bombed-out landscape clutching a jar of pickles. He is like the walking punchline to a cosmic jest of unfathomable cruelty.
Perhaps because of his own experiences, Mr. Polanski approaches this material with a calm, fierce authority. This is certainly the best work Mr. Polanski has done in many years (which, unfortunately, is not saying a lot), and it is also one of the very few nondocumentary movies about Jewish life and death under the Nazis that can be called definitive (which is saying a lot). And — again paradoxically — this is achieved by realizing the modest, deliberate intention to tell a single person’s story, to recreate a specific and finite set of events.
From the ghetto uprising forward ”The Pianist”becomes a tour de force of claustrophobia and surreal desperation, and Mr. Polanski ruthlessly strips his Szpilman down to the bare human minimum. He is neither an especially heroic nor an entirely sympathetic fellow, and by the end he has been reduced to a nearly animal condition — sick, haggard and terrified. But then the film’s climax offers the most dramatic paradox of all: a glimpse of how the impulses of civilization survive in the midst of unparalleled barbarism.


Manohla Dargis for the Los Angeles Times:

The late critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that Polanski is “totally armored against sentiment,” and that serves the director brilliantly in “The Pianist.” This armature allows Polanski to focus on Szpilman without losing sight of the larger devastation and, as important, it gives the director the intellectual distance to point out not just the tragedy of the Shoah but its inherent surrealism. “It’s too absurd,” one of Szpilman’s friends says plaintively, as she watches Warsaw’s Jews marched into the ghetto. “The Germans will never squander such a huge labor force,” says an old man quite reasonably, waving away rumors of extermination hours before he’s whisked off to a camp. Never before has a fiction film so clearly and to such devastating effect laid out the calculation of the Nazi machinery of death and its irrationality.
There are, perhaps, a limited number of ways to narrate the catastrophe of the Holocaust. One way is to present the overwhelming evidence as Raul Hilberg does in “The Destruction of the European Jews” and Claude Lanzmann does in his documentary “Shoah.” Another way is to filter some of that evidence through the experience of an individual. Polanski, who escaped the Krakow ghetto when he was a child, has spent his entire filmmaking career making movies that, steeped in alienation and paranoia, carry traces of the Holocaust. This time, faced with the historical event, he tempers his style, and the alienation and paranoia creep in from the outside, unescorted and relentless. With “The Pianist,” Polanski’s strange genius serves Szpilman’s remembrance and, in doing so, rescues his legacy from the blunder of much of the director’s recent work.
We know that Szpilman survived. In his book and in Polanski’s telling, the musician’s tortuous journey is neither triumphant nor beautiful; it is, rather, a testament to the essential human desire to live. In one of the more eccentric passages in “The Pianist,” Szpilman simply watches the war unfold while peeping from behind a window curtain. Every so often, a Polish man who’s meant to regularly supply him with provisions but rarely shows, drops by the apartment with a few crumbs. “Still alive, then,” he says, with a wild smile. The pianist registers the comment and shoots the man a quick look in which disbelief fights with disgust and hunger. Then the pianist does what anyone would. He picks up some food and begins to eat.


Peter Rainer for New York Magazine:

It’s Roman Polanski’s strongest and most personally felt movie. This should not come as a great surprise, since as a child Polanski survived the Kraków ghetto and lost family members in the Holocaust. The real surprise is that the horrors on display in The Pianist are presented matter-of-factly — which of course makes them seem even more horrific. We are not accustomed to such reserve in a movie about the Holocaust, and especially not in a Polanski movie, where the violence has often been close to Grand Guignol. But in this film he is trying to be devastatingly true to his emotions, and so there is no need for hyperbole. At times, the tension between the unwavering directness of his technique and the anguish that is behind it is almost unbearable.
Halfway through the movie, there’s a great, brief scene where Szpilman is hidden away in a Warsaw apartment and unable to touch its piano for fear of alerting the neighbors to his presence. The silent agony that ensues is one of the most powerful expressions of spiritual denial I’ve ever seen in a film. Szpilman’s artistry is not sentimentalized; we are never made to feel that he stayed alive because of it. In his memoir, which was published in 1946 under the title Death of a City and soon banned by the Communists, Szpilman wrote that his experience shattered his belief in the “solidarity of the Jews.” No doubt some people will regard the divulging of that experience as a betrayal, but Polanski honors the Jews of Warsaw by not romanticizing them; besides, there are many acts of extraordinary generosity and courage in The Pianist. They are just as inexplicable as the depravities.
Szpilman is not the kind of conventional hero — or anti-hero, for that matter — a movie such as this would seem to require. He’s a watcher, a reactor, and yet his recessiveness has metaphorical power: Szpilman is like a wraith witnessing the ruin of his beloved city and its people. (The Pianist is, among others things, a eulogy for Warsaw.) When he is finally driven out of his hiding places and wanders the blasted streets, the imagery goes beyond starkness into the surreal — we might be looking at a lunar landscape by De Chirico. In The Pianist, suffering is seen with such clarity that its relief becomes a balm of the greatest magnitude. It’s the relief we get when Szpilman plays the piano again, or merely makes it through another day. In moments like these, we are confronted with the significance, the momentousness, of the ordinary.


David Thompson for Sight & Sound:

The absolute conviction of its detail is what gives Polanski’s vision of life in the ghetto its almost hallucinatory quality. This is, in part, due to the triumphant production design (some of it on the original locations in Warsaw), but it also stems from a palpable sense of precise recollection from both parties. The enforced dancing at the road crossing between ill-matched Jewish couples might at first seem the indulgent invention of the prankish director of Dance of the Vampires (1967), but it is in fact a faithful realisation of Szpilman’s account. Szpilman’s ‘scientific’ descriptions of events – brutish Nazis tipping an old man out of his wheelchair from a high balcony, a woman shot in the street falling into a crouching position – find their perfect cinematic counterpoint in Polanski’s unerringly direct placement of his camera. And just as that camera always stayed very close to Jack Nicholson’s private eye in Chinatown (1974), making the film a compelling subjective experience, Szpilman himself is virtually always the point of reference throughout the film. Like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion or Polanski himself in The Tenant, Szpilman becomes a lonely, desperate victim of alien, peeling apartments, disturbing voices beyond the walls, and menacing neighbours.
The power of The Pianist derives largely from its dogged adherence to fact as well as its grim humour and restraint. Music is very sparingly applied, so that even a soaring crane shot over the devastated city of Warsaw is denied a swelling John Williams score of Spielbergian dimensions, but simply comes to rest with a plaintive clarinet solo. When Szpilman finally is allowed to play a Chopin ballade in order to prove his identity, music has been such a ‘lost’ sound that the performance has a rare emotional intensity. The lighting of this scene, in which Adrien Brody’s nose seems almost transparent in its frozen redness and the bitter cold is palpable in his steamy breath, is perfectly judged. Brody gives an admirably selfless performance throughout, conveying the unexceptional nature of Szpilman’s personality without ever suggesting he is undeserving of our interest. Ultimately, The Pianist is a far greater film than Polanski’s recent variable track record suggested it might be, a work of sustained tension and ferocious clarity, and as near-perfect a marriage of subject and artist as could be imagined.



Christos Tsiolkas discusses how the film succeeds where other Holocaust films have failed, for Senses of Cinema:

It is possible that one of Polanski’s greatest gifts as a filmmaker has been to convincingly investigate evil on screen. He is one of the great directors of horror but the power of his films comes from essaying evil as psychological and as existing in the everyday. Polanski creates an account of Polish Jewish experience in World War II that manages to be both illuminating, historically faithful, and definitive. I have seen documentary footage of the Warsaw Ghetto and part of Polanski’s achievement is to not attempt to recreate for us the astonishing and horrific images of death and decay that were caught by documentarians. Instead, we are offered an initially intimate portrait of Szpilman and through his eyes we begin to slowly understand the magnitude of the violence occurring around him. The Pianist works by maintaining a coolly detached view of the events in the Ghetto. We are placed in the position of observers of horror, and because so much of the Nazi terror depended on maintaining a climate of fear, we come to understand completely what allowed the horrors of the Holocaust to occur. The majority of The Pianist is filmed within closed rooms, claustrophobic spaces in which Szpilman and his family need to hide.
In one of the film’s greatest scenes, the inhabitants of the ghetto are rounded up in a square, waiting to board the death trains. The light in this scene burns orange and though the same detached mise en scène is at work, we are again in the position of observer, the effect is to create a vision of Hell on Earth that is as powerful as any expressionist vision I have ever seen in film. The image of the frightened, cowed figures occupying the square has the sculptural dignity and humanity of a classical tableau. In this moment, Polanski achieves an expression beyond what the documentaries of the Warsaw Ghetto have given us: this is visually a dirge, a lament, for the mass murder of souls. This is also the moment where Polanski’s commitment to eschew sentiment or melodrama, to maintain his studied detachment, comes together and makes complete sense. We have seen people attempt to maintain a façade of pre-war normality in conditions of madness and cruelty, and then, finally, we arrive at a moment where we see them entering the calamity which is the Final Solution and they have their humanity – their pride, their vanities, their hopes – stripped from them. Polanski’s achievement in this scene is something I thought, as I argued above, was not possible. He creates an appropriately mythic representation to the enormity of the crime the Nazis perpetrated against the European Jews, a representation that is not absurdist and mad, but classical and universal in its terrible melancholy beauty.
There are no scenes of Jewish celebration or religion in The Pianist. Instead, being Jewish is another accident of birth, an accident that sealed the horrific fate of millions of Europeans. Polanski, himself a Polish Jew and a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, has made a great narrative war film about a subject many of us thought “untranslatable”. But his vision of Hell is that of an atheist. There is no God in The Pianist, not a hint of Him. This Hell is completely man-made.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The title is an understatement, and so is the film. Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” tells the story of a Polish Jew, a classical musician, who survived the Holocaust through stoicism and good luck. This is not a thriller, and avoids any temptation to crank up suspense or sentiment; it is the pianist’s witness to what he saw and what happened to him. That he survived was not a victory when all whom he loved died; Polanski, in talking about his own experiences, has said that the death of his mother in the gas chambers remains so hurtful that only his own death will bring closure.
By showing Szpilman as a survivor but not a fighter or a hero–as a man who does all he can to save himself, but would have died without enormous good luck and the kindness of a few non-Jews–Polanski is reflecting, I believe, his own deepest fe 
After the war, we learn, Szpilman remained in Warsaw and worked all of his life as a pianist. His autobiography was published soon after the war, but was suppressed by Communist authorities because it did not hew to the party line (some Jews were flawed and a German was kind). Republished in the 1990s, it caught Polanski’s attention and resulted in this film, which refuses to turn Szpilman’s survival into a triumph and records it primarily as the story of a witness who was there, saw, and remembers.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →