The Pianist (2002) Movie Review

Forgive me for saying so, but I don’t find “The Pianist”, Roman Polanski’s stab at a World War II epic, to be all that great. With all the hype surrounding the film’s North American release, I was expecting something on the scale and quality of Steven Spielberg’s momentous picture “Schindler’s List.” Instead, “The Pianist” is yet another standard retelling of Polish Jews struggling to survive in German-occupied Poland during World War II.

The movie is based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a somewhat famous Jewish pianist living in Warsaw, Poland. When the Germans easily storm into Poland and take over the country, Szpilman and his family are herded into crowded ghettos. Here, the family struggles to survive, even as fellow Jews are indiscriminately slaughtered around them. But against all odds, they do survive, at least for a while. Things become even bleaker when the family is ordered, along with most of the Jews, to the death camps. Szpilman is saved, seemingly at the whim of one of his captors. Left in Warsaw, Szpilman struggles to survive as an uprising begins to brew in the streets around him…

Since the movie is based on Szpilman’s own book, there’s no question that he survives. Although after watching “The Pianist” I don’t actually know how this is possible, because the man seems to have the survival instincts of a cockroach. Besides that, Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is portrayed in the film as completely undeserving of being saved. The man is, for a lack of a better word, a coward. When he’s saved from being sent to the death camps, Szpilman makes a feeble attempt to reach his family, then races off to ensure his own survival. What a guy!

Of course I’m assuming that Polanski was keenly aware of his main character’s flaws, and I’ll even go so far as to say that Polanski knew audiences would eventually lose faith in Szpilman and become only too willing to give him up for dead. If this is so, then perhaps having the entire movie revolve around Szpilman was not such a great idea. As it stands, once Szpilman is separated from his family he does little to aid in his own cause. Jewish sympathizers are the ones risking their necks to harbor him. And as these good people begin to disappear one by one, we begin to question why Szpilman’s survival should be such high priority to us. The movie tells us that Szpilman is a great pianist, but besides that, what makes him so special?

Take for example the Polish uprising, and Szpilman’s lack of participation. Not once did this selfish man lift a hand to help them; not once does he pick up a gun, or a grenade, or anything to earn the right to survive. Of course that would require courage, or at least some ability to think beyond one’s own immediate survival. Maybe the movie was trying to make a point that even cowards deserve to live. Then again, tell that to the women and children fighting for the coward’s freedom, and being gunned down without mercy as a result.

The film is also too long for its own good, and reeks of Polanski’s ego telling him that “The Pianist” can’t qualify as an “epic” unless its running time surpasses the two hour mark. By the time the film hits the hour and a half mark, I was ready for Adrien Brody to take a bullet in the head and call it a day. Why did Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood think we would become so invested in Szpilman’s survival? There’s nothing about the movie, and Brody’s stiff (and sometimes too emotionless) portrayal of Szpilman to warrant our pity. This man must live? I don’t see why!

“The Pianist” is a lush and expensive production, and is visually stunning from beginning to end. The treatment of the Jews by the Nazis is graphic and shot in a matter-of-fact style, bringing home the casual brutality administered by the Nazis. Polanski has painstakingly recreated World War II Warsaw, including the Jewish ghettos, only to destroy them. Even though the movie seems limited in scope (the film never leaves Warsaw), this works because it helps the movie achieve a personal feel. Since Polanski has made the decision to see things through Szpilman’s eyes, it makes sense that the visual narrative never extends beyond what is immediately around Szpilman.

But beyond its good looks, “The Pianist” failed to really impress me. Call me cynical, but it’s not enough to just make a World War II film about the Holocaust anymore. I expect more. What Spielberg did with “Schindler’s List” was to set the bar for everyone to follow, and a movie about a coward (even if it is a true story) does not endear itself to me. Even the recent TV miniseries “Uprising”, also about the same Polish uprising, had more emotion and passion than Polanski’s film.

But of course making a great movie is no longer necessary nowadays, or at least that’s what it seems like by all the accolades Polanski is getting for this movie. Like movies about AIDS and the gay lifestyle, you can’t go wrong with a Holocaust epic, even if they happen to be as uninvolving and plodding as “The Pianist.”

Roman Polanski (director) / Ronald Harwood (screenplay), Wladyslaw Szpilman (book)
CAST: Adrien Brody …. Wladyslaw Szpilman
Daniel Caltagirone …. Majorek

Buy The Pianist on DVD