The Pianist
4 1/2 stars

review by Stephen Notley

The Pianist isn't an emotionally easy film. There's little sense that it's been crafted into a story, a machine to make you feel and react in certain ways. The Pianist isn't about heroic journeys, or dramatic, character-building experiences. Director Roman Polanski will not tell you how to feel. All he's saying is "Here. Sit down. Watch what happened."

What happened was the Holocaust, and the power of The Pianist comes from how simply and unemotionally it casts its gaze about and sees the most terrible things. Trivial acts of evil at first, like two German soldiers ordering an old Jewish man, armbanned, to walk in the gutter. Then worse: a street turned into a brick wall, sealing the Jews in. Then worse. Just things, seen, glimpsed, noticed, as normal life turns into careless death.

The Pianist refuses easy categorizations, admitting no heroes or villains. It's not hard to point the camera and show Nazis doing evil, but Polanski is just as uncompromising and unsentimental when he points the camera at the Warsaw Jews. He will show you a family of Jews arguing about where to hide their money. He will show you Jews in the ghetto fighting over slop spilled on the road. He will show you Jews collaborating with the enemy, selling each other out, giving up hope. He will show you defeat.

The centre of the film is concert pianist Wldyslaw Szpilman, played with haunted gauntness by Adrian Brody. He is the one we follow, but he is no hero. He doesn't live because he's smarter, or better, or more worthy of life, or because his music gives him the strength to go on. He just lives, and around him we see the hollowed-out thing the world has become.

Brody does a stunning job as Szpilman. It's hard to play a role where you're mostly by yourself, and it's even harder when the story isn't built around dramatic, character-defining choices. Brody's eyes hold us, taking us with him even as Szpilman doesn't know where he's going, saved by chance from the trains, helped out of the ghetto, and finally sent scurrying from flat to flat to rubble to rubble, looking for anything to eat. We're not expected to love him, though we do admire him, and the moments when he recalls the music that animated his life are hauntingly beautiful.

The film is so subtle and uninflected, you almost don't notice extraordinary heroism and courage when it appears. Szpilman's escape from the ghetto is assisted by several Warsaw gentiles, whose hurried conversations and brief appearances belie the fact that they are risking their lives not just for Szpilman, but for dozens or hundreds of others. At another point, Szpilman glances out of his window and sees shooting in the streets. He is seeing a ghetto uprising, rebels fighting off German soldiers for over a month. The Pianist doesn't call attention to these things, doesn't swell music for feeling, but it shows it all the same. 

For all its seeming dispassion, The Pianist is a deeply emotional film. With choices so subtle they don't even feel like choices at all, Polanski gives us a human picture of an unthinkable thing, where the drama and heroics of movies falls away and seems to leave us, somehow, with the thing itself. Unforgettable.