The Pianist

4 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: January 15, 2003
Reviewed at the 2003 Palm Springs International Film Festival
The art wasn't trusted

The life of a concert pianist demands hours, days, and months of solitary practice before reaching a level high enough to endure and attract public scrutiny. But then the years of a career allow no less time for frequent trips to the cell of the practice studio where technique and repertoire must be continuously revisited or, like a New Year’s diet that slips into the dessert tray, will soon permit the art to laugh at its proponent.

Seeing Wladyslaw Szpilman (brilliantly portrayed by Adrien Brody) perform Chopin live-to-air as Warsaw began its horrific occupation by the Nazis—the music cut off in a phrase that would not be completed until the systematic elimination of those who love art was finally halted by the same oppressors that horrified Poland’s most famous son a century earlier—established the non-musical theme for Roman Polanski’s deeply disturbing, but beautifully crafted film.

As his family was forced from upper middle-class security into life in the arm-banded ghetto to their final journey on the train with no baggage car, Szpilman survived—saved by his fame, his friends and, ironically, by the Jewish ghetto; police looking uncomfortable as they rationalized their “privileged” position even as they herded less compromising compatriots into the rolling pens of death.

But even in his seclusion (arranged by the husband of the beautiful Gentile amateur musician, drew the completely out-of-character line “You’d look so good playing the cello,” from Szpilman in the early going) locked into a “safe” room was fraught with unexpected peril. For his minder (echoing the theme of Philanthropycross-reference below) leaves him to starve even as he accepts donations from manipulated supporters.

Polanski’s penchant for unstinting detail (the atrocities presented in cold, detached understatement) and his first-rate collaborators including Pawel Edelman’s fearless camera, and Allan Starski’s magnificent design—particularly the forever-haunting moonscape of the gutted ghetto as seen through Szpilman’s lonely eyes after scaling the brick barricade, searching for safety in Warsaw’s backyard of misery (the opening measures of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, like Barber’s Adagio for Strings during the helicopter killings in Apocalypse Now, will be forever welded to this scene—making this account simultaneously revolting and mesmerizing).

As the story progresses, the pianist—deprived of his art—morphs into the role of silent observer, always near the action but unable to use his skill to make a difference.

Brody has done his homework: when his fingers are required, either on the keys or flying by rote just above them—the ultimate playing by memory—he is entirely convincing. But, ultimately, it is the musical track beneath his tour de force portrayal that robs this work of true greatness. With all of the vividness of life and death, trappings and styles and even the weather in every scene, I was astonished at what was allowed to be heard while Szpilman—literally—plays for his life, having been discovered by a German officer. After years of neglect, both the pianist and his dust-covered piano combine for a near note-perfect, in-tune performance. That could not have happened; the entire spell was broken.

Polanski, like so many performers and artists’ managers of the present day, makes the classic mistake of not trusting the art: He believes that unless the Nocturne “sounds” beautiful, the audience will not accept the Nazi’s decision to spare the performer. But imagine the scene where wrong notes abound, the pitch is off, the pedals malfunction, yet the inner conviction of the music and the musician produce the same result: freedom to live and play again. That would be compelling.

Still, this film will linger in the minds of all who experience it; the notion that war is the absence of art in our dealings with one another will remain as timeless as a well-written phrase. JWR

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