Revisiting Roman Polanski's brilliant film 'The Pianist'


“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

In 2003, Roman Polanski brought us The Pianist—a treacherous tale of Wladylaw Szpilman’s struggle to survive the Holocaust. Adapted from his personal memoirs, the film portrays the Jewish effort to avert Hitler’s attempts to destruct and dehumanise the race in the Polish ghettos. Focussing on the individual journey of a local radio pianist, this film is a heart-wrenching picture that is sure to affect even the most thick-skinned of viewers.

Admittedly there have been numerable films released about the Holocaust, but as The Pianist went head-to-head with Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ for that number spot, challenge is tough at the top. Voted for numerous awards, ‘The Pianist’ executed a clean sweep snapping up 14 in total; including the Academy Award for Best Actor and Best Director. Based on these awards and the film’s quality alone, it’s fair to say that Adrien Brody (starring as Szpilman) and director Roman Polanski gave the performances of their lives in this historic adaptation.

The tone of the film is evident from the offset– showing the individual journey of Polish pianist, Wladylaw Szpilman. He is presented playing Chopin in the radio studio, the setting of which he eventually returns to—albeit under slightly different circumstances. As he rushes home to his family after the first bombs begin to fall, they receive the heavily greeted news that France and Great Britain are to declare war on Germany, suggesting an imminent end to Hitler’s reign—news they later discover to be the seed of false hope.

The absurd Nazi control intensifies at the same rate of the film’s progression, resulting in the restriction of Jews walking in the park; even sitting on a bench. Polanski goes on to show possibly the most disturbing scene of the film, as an elderly man in a wheelchair gets thrown out of his balcony window for failing to stand up during a raid—a moment to wince if ever there was one.

Although it may make for harsh viewing, Polanski is ruthless with his accurate portrayal. From someone whose own mother lost her life in the gas chambers, it seems that the director feels it is his duty to wipe away our modern naivety and recreate these events in a black and white manner.

The isolated journey of Szpilman highlights honour and bravery, as well as a slight sprinkling of luck to avoid his expected ‘extermination’. He survives the animalistic treatment of the Jews, but to what end?

Polanski refrains from giving the film that ‘happy ending’ most viewers strive for, because let’s be honest—it didn’t end happily. Yes, Szpilman lived on, but with what? His friends, family and beliefs were somewhat destroyed. He lost everything, but his innate ability to play the piano—a concluding scene that warms the heart by portraying perfectly his only remaining love and passion.

To describe this film in one word would be a challenge, but if it had to be done—brutal. Polanski never overlooks the horrors that were continually witnessed during the Holocaust. As viewers we are thrown into the unimaginable mix of Warsaw, using Brody’s character as a mechanism that enables us to experience first-hand the atrocities the Germans committed. However, what makes this film so memorable is the quality of acting – a quality of such high calibre that we feel The Pianist is more of a live account, as opposed to a Hollywood blockbuster.

The Pianist is a masterpiece that will undoubtedly live on in the history of filmmaking. Despite the sensitive subject, the consistency throughout the film enables easy viewing for the heart-broken audience. Polanski has utilised one of the most shocking events in history to create a modern classic’ showing the devastating detachment of a young man from his family, and the attempted abomination of an innocent race.

By Charlie Elgar.

(All images © 2002 – Focus Features via IMDb)