Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 23, 2003
Warsaw Concerto

The Pianist isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, but what a story he has.


Last May, The Pianist won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and it hasn’t stopped picking up accolades, appearing on many critics’ year-end top-10 lists and garnering early award nominations. The truth is that while it’s far from being a bad movie, this Holocaust drama has been overrated for a number of perfectly good reasons. It has a top-notch lead performance, for one, and it outstrips anything director Roman Polanski has done since his 1970s Hollywood days. (Who doesn’t like a good comeback?)

It’s also based on a great story. Wladyslaw Szpilman was the pianist who was playing on Polish national radio when the Nazis invaded in 1939. When the Germans took over, they initially promised full protection for Warsaw’s large Jewish population, and then slowly rolled back every liberty and every freedom until they had murdered nearly all the Jews in the city. Szpilman lived to tell his tale, but only after a number of narrow escapes. An acquaintance pulled him out of line for the train that sent the rest of his family to die in the concentration camps. Friends hid him away as long as they could, and he lived for a while as a homeless person running for his life through the bombed-out ruins of Warsaw. In the war’s final weeks, a Nazi officer discovered Szpilman’s hiding place and, instead of turning him in, secretly gave him shelter and food until the Germans pulled out.

All this is compellingly told in Szpilman’s slim memoir, The Death of a City, translated into English as The Pianist. The author never explicitly says how he maintained his sanity, but his elegant prose style indicates a man who clung to his cultivation and his art amid the genocidal horror. Szpilman’s body survived because of other people’s kindness and some sheer luck, but his mind survived because of his music.

The movie wants to be the book as much as possible. This isn’t entirely a bad thing; Polanski’s objective style embodies the author’s understatement, frequently taking in atrocities from Szpilman’s point of view as he watches the street from his apartment window. The trouble is that Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood feel the need to squeeze in every last detail and every character from the book regardless of whether they should. Though they never actually impede the story’s flow, their fussy and overly literal approach draws out the movie longer than it has to be. The book is better for being short, and this 148-minute film only represents a dilution.

Szpilman’s life story carries the film, especially if you haven’t read the book. New York actor Adrien Brody plays Szpilman, and he not only looks the part of the pianist with his languid expression but remains credible through every turn of the man’s harrowing odyssey. With the talent involved and a formerly burned-out filmmaker returning to his native country, seemingly everything is in place for a truly great film. It’s too bad, then, that the result is merely respectable and above-average.

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