The pianist is Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who at the time the Nazis invade Poland is 27 years old, a professional radio performer of classical pieces who still lives with his parents, brother and sisters. Refined and reserved, he sticks with his family when they and the rest of Warsaw's Jews are herded into that city's infamous ghetto. Luck saves him from the cattle cars (a fate not spared his relatives), and circumstance more than anything allows him to survive. Ultimately, in fact, Szpilman lives because of his functionally useless ability to play the piano exquisitely.
Szpilman, who went on to become a prolific composer, was real (he died in 2000), and the film is based on a book he wrote. But despite Brody's fine performance, this movie unmistakably belongs to another Holocaust survivor: Its director, Roman Polanski, is the son of Polish Jews who himself escaped from the Krakow ghetto while still a child and somehow lived to tell about it.
It's Polanski's irony, and the hard-eyed way he looks at the realities of deprivation, violence and power, that set his film apart. In The Pianist, the ghetto is divided not simply between Nazis and Jews, but also between its rich and poor denizens. The former dine in restaurants where an impoverished Szpilman performs, while in the streets an old man tugs a pot of corn mush from an old woman, and when it falls eagerly slurps the mess from the pavement. Starved-dead children lie ivory-pale in the crowded streets, but Polanski doesn't dwell on them, or even really mourn -- they are a fact plain as stones.
Szpilman is saved from the cattle-car line serendipitously -- by a Jewish ghetto cop he'd earlier refused to help -- and eventually is snuck out. Necessarily keeping his enemies closer than his friends, he is hidden just outside the ghetto's walls. A prisoner of favor in a series of apartments, he is both rescued by Warsaw's underground and cheated by it. By stages he's reduced to a two-legged beast whose only concerns are food, water and shelter. All the while Polanski expresses both his bewilderment at Jewish meekness in the face of oppression and plentiful evidence that resistance, too, is doomed. From a high window inside the new ghetto, Szpilman watches the Jews get walled off from the rest of humanity; later, from a high window outside the ghetto, he watches a hole blown in the wall by a prisoner revolt that's swiftly quashed by German soldiers shooting back from the side where he's hiding.
After his films -- maybe even before them -- Polanski is best known as a victim and a perpetrator of Hollywood depravity. His wife, Sharon Tate, was Manson's most famous murder victim. And in 1977, Polanski himself became a fugitive from U.S. justice, fleeing to Europe after entering a partial guilty plea in the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. Less well known is his childhood spent wandering the Polish countryside, seeking refuge with Catholic families and being shot at for sport by German soldiers.
No doubt those experiences, combined with an early adulthood making art behind the Iron Curtain, fueled the dark and cinematically brilliant visions of even his two big Hollywood successes, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown.
And his biography is surely deep in the layered, resonating tones Polanski -- who's now nearly 70 -- summons in The Pianist. The film is full of nightmarish, desperately telling scenes, like the unforgettable one when Szpilman tries to help a small boy make it through a hole in the ghetto's thick stone wall. The Pianist is at once deeply moving yet somehow dry-eyed; unlike most Holocaust films, it contains neither concentration camps nor uplifting messages about hope. Szpilman neither deserves to die nor deserves more than anyone else to live. He just does. * * * 1/2