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The Pianist

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Pianist

Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann
Director: Roman Polanski
Rated: R
RunTime: 148 Minutes
Release Date: December 2002
Genres: Drama, War


*Also starring: Emilia Fox, Maureen Lipman, Ed Stoppard, Frank Finlay



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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Wouldn't you think that Roman Polanski would want to make a movie about his own life? He was no pampered product of a preppie film school but, having been born (in 1933) to Polish- Jewish parents, he had a terrifying childhood. His mother died in a Nazi concentration camp when Roman was eight. He escaped from the Krakow ghetto before its liquidation and wandered about gaining refuge with a number of Catholic families. He was used by German soldiers for target practice. Ducking bullets from the brutal occupying force must have given him the obsession with fear, a preoccupation shown in such works as "Rosemary's Baby," "Macbeth," and (uh oh) "The Ninth Gate."

Not wanting to be so egotistical as to display his own memoirs he borrowed those of Wladyslaw Szpilman, one of the world's great pianists in his day. Szpilman is not the Superman sort of hero that movies usually portray but one who simply wanted to remain alive and who, powerless to save Gotham, instead depended on the kindness of strangers for his own survival. Szpilman's story is a tragic one albeit one with a bittersweet ending. In the hands of Polanski-who allegedly interviewed over 1,400 applicants for the lead role and wisely chose Adrien Brody, "The Pianist," which is the first movie that Polanski made in his native country in forty years, is a spellbinder.

Polanski, like Costa-Gavras (whose film "Amen" evokes the horrors of the Holocaust without displaying the obligatory and numbing pile-up of bodies) but unlike Tim Blake Nelson (whose "The Grey Zone" takes us right into the bowels of hell), opts out of showing us the scenes of massive death we've encountered so many times over the past decades in other Holocaust works. His focus is on the title character himself; in fact, for a stretch of some thirty or forty minutes, Adrien Brody is virtually alone on the screen in a performance that reminds us Tom Hanks's incredible one-man role in Robert Zemeckis's "Cast Away."

"The Pianist" opens in 1939, six years after the accession of Hitler in Germany, when the Nazi invasion of Poland sparked the entrance of England and France into the war. The German occupation forces lay down a steady stream of interdictions on the Polish Jews, forbidding them to walk in the park or even on the sidewalk at the risk of being severely beaten. A wall is built to enclose a ghetto into which all Jews are required to move, When the Germans then begin forcing the Jews onto trains leading to the concentration camp at Treblinka, Szpilman's parents are sent off but Wladislaw escapes. The heart of the film is the pianist's desperate attempt to remain alive as he trudges from one abandoned building to another, at times helped by members of the Polish Underground. Adrien Brody gets ample chance to sparkle as a man, formerly of dignity and renown as a musician, who is reduced to a quivering shape from jaundice, fever, and fear. Having lost thirty pounds for the role, Brody could pass for a victim of the Nazi atrocities against Jews, emaciated, running through just about every emotion an actor is required to portray. The most impressive scene occurs near the conclusion as Wladislaw, certain that he is to die by the hand of a German officer who discovers him in an attic, must charm the obviously cultured officer with his keyboard skills.

Paced by Polanski with restraint which only strengthens the power of the scenes of overt violence, "The Pianist" not only affords Brody the strong possbiility of an Oscar nomination but continues Polanski's reputation as a film maker who can evoke audience fears not simply from stories of the supernatural but from the all-too-frequent horrors that arise from our own, civilized world.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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