Review: The Pianist

by Jake Sproul

Rating: (out of )

As I am new to the film critiquing business, I do not have a database or previous seen movies at my disposal to draw from and compare to. Its embarrassing for me to say, but I have not seen such necessary movies as The Godfather or Casablanca. Until last week, Schindlerís List was among those movies I need to see but havenít yet gotten around to viewing. However, before I saw The Pianist, I was determined to see companion piece and fellow Oscar winner Schindlerís List as research for The Pianist. After seeing both films though, its plainly obvious to see that while both these films deal with the Holocaust, their approaches are polar opposites. Choosing the better film between the two is simply a matter of taste, and a preference of perspective. Schindlerís List was a true masterpiece, and Spielbergís best work. Yet I believe that The Pianist is the better film. (The enormity of that statement should be obvious to anyone who has seen Schindlerís List.) As a brief disclaimer, I should right now say that in the following paragraphs you will read many comparisons to Schindlerís List, I do this to compartmentalize to differences between the two.

The road that The Pianist has taken to show the horrors of The Holocaust is a personal one. Instead of viewing the horrors of the concentration camps, we are introduced to Wladyslaw Szpilman (pronounced Wah-dick Spill-men), a Jew leaving is Warsaw during WW2. He is a successful pianist, who plays on the radio. When the German occupation of Poland begins, his family is sent on a train, likely to a concentration camp, but he is able to escape the loading, and ends up on the run. With the help of some old friends and Jewish sympathizers, Wladyslaw must hole up in apartments and finally, blown up buildings and rubble. Wladyslaw observes the atrocities of war while on the run, but as his health begins to deteriorate, his survival starts to become his only thought, apart from his piano concertos of course.

While Spielbergís Schindlerís List characterizes the Holocaust as a whole much better than Polanskiís The Pianist, The Pianist does a far better job of Ďcinematizingí the Holocaust, and is able to get away from the documentary feel that so many other films dealing with the Holocaust have projected. By introducing us to, and sticking with one character for the duration of the movie and war, we are able to more accurately humanize and connect with the horrors of the attempted genocide of an entire race. While this may sound...reversed, consider the old adage, ďif a thousand are killed, its a statistic; if one is killed, its a tragedy.Ē The Pianist is the best film that takes advantage of this human psychological train of thought.

In many movies dealing with the Holocaust, we see the bodies, and the horrors, and the evil. We see that all in The Pianist, but in a more subdued, and almost more horrific manner. In the Jewish district of Poland, shortly before all Jews were sent to concentration camps, we see Wladyslaw walking casually around bodies, laying dead in the street. Walking away from a boy who has just been killed, after trying to save his life. While Schindlerís List depictions of the terrors of concentration camps were at times manipulating, The Pianistís subdued approach to death in the ghettos is more effective.

While not technologically innovative , The Pianist makes use of the best art and set direction, cinematography, sound/score and editing available. In addition to the outstanding script, the movie simply looks great. In every scene, in every frame, The Pianist is able to actually take us to WW2 and into the heart of the Warsaw ghetto. The scenery and sets for The Pianist are so wonderfully constructed that we have a hard time believing that this is a movie. The cinematography by Pawel Edelman - whose first English language film is The Pianist - proves that art is a universal language. The camera work is extraordinary when Edelman lets us simply observe, and even more extraordinary when we see the intensity and passion of the behind the camera portrayed in front of the camera. Clocking in at 148 minutes, The Pianist significantly shorter than the 3 and a half hour plus marathon of Schindlerís List. Surprisingly, nothing is lost in the editing process, on the contrary, effect is gained as we never bore, and are subsequently able to absorb more of the film. To edit a Holocaust drama is no easy task, but French editor Herve de Luze was obviously up to the task.

When I saw About Schmidt, I was certain that Jack Nicholson turned in the best performances of the year. When I saw Adaptation, thoughts of Jack Nicholson left my head, and images of the acting of Nicolas Cage replaced it. When I saw Gangs of New York, I was certain that the best performance went to Daniel Day-Lewis. Now, after seeing The Pianist, I can see that Adrien Brody deserved his much talked about Best Actor Oscar, and while not totally eclipsing Daniel Day-Lewis, he certainly comes close - too close too call in fact! Brody is radiant on the screen, and transcends the boundaries between film and life to actually inhabit Wladyslaw Szpilman. Its rare to find such an unseasoned actor who is able to carry a piece so heavy, almost entirely by himself, but Brody never, not once drops the ball. There is not much supporting cast to speak of in The Pianist, but what characters there were, from the Szpilman family to a friend named Dorota to a friendly German captain, are all luminous in what lines and screen time they are given.

Schindlerís List has one thing over The Pianist, a Best Picture Oscar. Yet as such, the importance of Oscar only slips that much further. The Pianist is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, and I am sure that the regard that film will be held in, will only increase with time. Driven by a tour de force performance by Adrien Brody, The Pianist never falters. Roman Polanski was initially offered the script of Schindlerís List, but turned it down, citing it would be too personal a project after his own experiences with the Naziís of WW2. Instead, Polanski has chosen The Pianist - a biographical story - to weave together the events of the Holocaust, and is able to overshadow Schindlerís List - the factual account. This is the first the Roman Polanski film I have seen, but seeing first hand his abilities behind the camera, I may just have to make a trip to the video store.

© 2003 Jacob Sproul

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