Ranking: #28/111

Director: Roman Polanski (Poland)           

Genre: War Drama

One of the most powerful and shattering war dramas of all time, The Pianist portrays the oppression of Polish Jews in Warsaw during the German occupation. The anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi occupiers work like a slow, inexorable poison, as Polanski shows, step-by-step, how a system of persecution gradually strangled the life and dignity out of a people.

Finally, the Warsaw Ghetto is walled off from the rest of the city and from civilisation itself. Once the ghetto has been walled off, Polanski depicts the decline of those trapped inside with the same inexorability we witnessed during the introduction and steady build-up of the policies of discrimination against the Jews of Warsaw. With relentless documentary realism, the director methodically reveals the systematic and pitiless humiliation of the entrapped Polish Jews Inside the Ghetto. Life inside there is cheap and expendable. Disease and death are rampant. The Ghetto becomes a death camp, a concentration camp in all but name.

In this true story about Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, a Holocaust survivor, Polanski fearlessly portrays the full horror of the Nazi’s grotesque culture of death. The total degradation and absolute brutality shatter the senses of the viewer, who feels uncomfortably like a witness to the darkest period in modern history. It’s almost a Theatre of the Absurd, a pantomime of horrors where the real has become surreal.

The camera becomes an impersonal eye recreating history and we the viewers are helpless bystanders to a sensory pummelling. The depiction of how Polish Jews were so systematically dehumanised is painful to behold. It is grim, unrelenting, in-your-face realism. Slowly but surely, the audience’s defences are dismantled. The resultant emotional impact is overwhelming and unforgettable. The reality of war becomes an overpowering hyperreality. That is the movie’s supreme achievement.

Has there ever been so true a depiction of what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto in literature or cinema? I got the impression that Polanski wanted the work of film art he was creating to be a lasting testimony, to be as strong and as monumental a study as a statue by Michelangelo.

The director showed great artistic restraint in turning his camera into an impersonal eye watching recreated history unfold as dispassionately as possible. When he was a boy, he and his family had been trapped in the Kraków Ghetto after Germany’s invasion of Poland. After his mother and father were taken away by Nazis, the young Polanski escaped and survived by adopting a false identity and concealing his Jewish identity. This material was all so deeply personal to him.

The cast is stunning, led by a truly superlative performance from Adrien Brody as the pianist Szpilman. It was very moving to watch him. He really looked at times as though he was starving. And the visuals of a bombed-out Warsaw are apocalyptic, mesmerising.

I was touched when Polanski went against the grain of the whole movie to create a sequence which shows a German officer in a human light. During the Warsaw Uprising, the apartment where Szpilman was hiding was blasted into smithereens and he then wandered around, eventually finding an abandoned house where he could hide. There, the starving man finds a tin of pickles. The house is then taken over by the Wehrmacht and turned into an improvised command centre. Szpilman is soon discovered by a German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, who treats the Jewish fugitive kindly, allowing him to continue living in the attic. Thomas Kretschmann gives a measured, credible performance as the “human face” of the Nazis. As the Allied Forces close in, the Germans flee and Hosenfeld, a lover of music and impressed by Szpilman’s skill as a pianist, gives him some food, as well as greatcoat for protection against the freezing conditions.

In the Spring of 1945, some liberated inmates of a concentration camp come across a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp holding German POWs. Hosenfeld is one of them. He asks the former inmates to tell Szpilman he is in the camp, hoping this might lead to his freedom one day. By the time Szpilman finds the camp, however, it has been abandoned.

Szpilman lived to the age of 88, dying in 2000. It is thought that Hosenfeld died in a Soviet POW camp in 1952. The brief comradeship between the two enemies in the conflict is the only glimmer of hope in the whole film, while the pianist’s music triumphs as a language of the soul.

What also triumphs, like Chopin’s timeless music, is Polanski’s cinematic artistry.