Without a doubt, the biggest overall shocker of the 2003 Oscars, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, was the unexpected awarding of some of the top prizes to an un-favored Holocaust movie made by a man who fled the country to avoid sentencing for statutory rape chargers. The Pianist walked away with Best Director (Roman Polanski), Best Actor (Adrien Brody), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Naturally, being the movie aficionados we are, we wanted to see what the fuss was all about. The movie, based on a true story, follows a brilliant Polish pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman, a Jew, is yanked off the radio and placed in the Warsaw ghetto with the rest of his family. With the help of a Jewish policeman, Szpilman avoids the Concentration Camp but ends up in the ghetto. Inside the ghetto, he leads a difficult life as a laborer, barely managing to survive. Eventually, Szpilman escapes the ghetto, through the help of a German couple. Outside of the Ghetto, Szpilman is alone, and eventually takes refuge in an abandoned building, where he is ultimatley spared by a German Capitain.
Szpilman’s survival story comes through luck and perhaps fate alone; there are several instances when he survives merely because he’s lucky. Seemingly random acts, the fleeting kindness of a few friends, and dissent within ranks contributed to the survival of many Jews. The Fortuitous actions of strangers is how many Jews survived the Holocaust, but, because most Jews died, survival stories are sadly isolated incidents.
Polanski himself was a Holocaust survivor. As a child he lived in a situation similar to pianist Szpilman’s–he randomly made it through. Polanski’s direction conveys this sense of fortunate survival; several times the audience (myself included) was audibly gasping as one difficult scene after another unfolds. The story of survival is seen in an interesting, yet disheartening (for obvious reasons) new light.
Adrien Brody, a no-name until the fame of this movie, plays Szpilman with elegance and conviction. Brody captures very real emotions on screen, and there is a sense of prevailing charisma that abounds from his facial expressions. Szpilman goes through a dramatic physical change to match his worn down emotional state. By the end, it is hard not to emphasize with Szpilman, after seeing, in violent detail, the horrors outside of the concentration camps.
This film is full of shocking and disturbing images, which visually convey what the true reality of the Holocaust was. The serious mood gets so intense at times that any slightly witty dialogue brings many relieved chuckles from the audience. It may seem the movie is detached, as the difference between death and survival is as random as a roll of the dice; yet stories of survival from the holocaust are not often attributed to heroism, but rather small acts of kindness and simple perseverance.
The Pianist is a superbly composed film that will leave you with a greater understanding of the Holocaust as a whole. If you haven’t seen it, since we took like a year to write this review after we started it, go out and rent it!