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Customer Review

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Survival, Yes, But of What?, 1 Nov. 2005
This review is from: The Pianist [DVD] [2003] (DVD)
When Adrien Brody received the Academy Award for best actor in a leading role earlier this year, I was at first surprised. (I had expected Daniel Day-Lewis to be elected because of his incandescent portrayal of William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting in Gangs of New York.) Then I began to think again about The Pianist and realized that Brody's character -- Wladyslaw Szpilman -- was the focal point of that film from beginning to end...and that most of his portrayal was non-verbal. (Some may assert that the Warsaw Ghetto, not Szpilman, is the main character. They have a point.) Directed by Roman Polanski who also won an Academy Award -- as best director -- and deservedly so, this film examines a five-year period during World War Two when Warsaw was invaded and occupied by German and then Allied forces.

For me, the defining moment in this film occurs when a bomb exploding in the studio drives Szpilman from the piano and ends the broadcast of his performance. His obsession with creating art seems to exclude from his consciousness any deep concern about his family (parents, two sisters, and a brother) or about the brutalities amidst German occupation, especially in response to Jewish resistance. I have not read Szpilman's memoirs, first published as Death of a City (1946) and then as The Pianist (1998). All I know about him is based entirely on Brody's portrayal in the film. This detachment from the world around him is evident again later, as when Szpilman, in hiding, silently moves his fingers across a piano keyboard, lost in the creation of music only he can hear in that situation but which the film's soundtrack effectively provides.

Polanksi's film obviously celebrates human survival during one of history's worst periods. I realize that comparisons and contrasts of Szpilman with other characters in other films is probably a fool's errand. However, at the conclusion of the The Pianist, I thought about Sol Nazerman (played by Rod Steiger) in The Pawnbroker (1964) who, at that film's conclusion, unleashes a silent scream of unspeakable pain. For whatever reasons, there is no such indication that what Szpilman has observed (if not experienced) has similarly affected him. The war ends. Life continues. Szpilman's career resumes. Perhaps, just perhaps Szpilman's own emotions can only be expressed through the creation of great art. It remains for others to express theirs in other ways, perhaps with a silent scream.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 20 Aug 2014 20:05:29 BDT
I am intrigued at how you arrived at the following view: "His obsession with creating art seems to exclude from his consciousness any deep concern about his family".
To me Szpilman seemed very concerned about his family. For example he saved his brother from the clutches of the Jewish ghetto police who had been rounding people up. Secondly he scoured the ghetto for a work permit for his father who was in danger of being deported without one. He also worked as a café pianist to earn money for food for his family rather than getting involved with the insurrectionists. Finally he was utterly devastated when his family were taken away by the Nazis. After that he was obviously concerned with his own survival. At another point in the film he tries to save a little boy who is crawling under the ghetto wall to escape from German pursuers.
I do not agree with your other point regarding Szpilman's detachment from the world when he mimes a piano piece while in hiding. Obviously we all understand that he is unable to actually play the piano as this would give away his hiding place. The fact that he performs this silent solo should be understood, in my reading of it, as a small escape from the nightmare he finds himself in and a connection to the life he has lost. From that perspective I completely see why he would do something like that.
I think Brody has skilfully portrayed a traumatized man who is numbed by the pain of what he has witnessed. The irony is that as he tries to hug the first returning war refugee to a destroyed city he is almost shot because he is wearing a German overcoat. The story about Szpilman returning to work at Polish Radio is not well explained in the film. The point was to reopen broadcasting at Warsaw Radio with exactly the same piece Szpilman was playing when broadcasting was interrupted at the beginning of hostilities in 1939. It's almost an as-I-was-saying-before-we-were-so-rudely-interrupted sort of thing; a snub to the German invasion.

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Aug 2014 00:14:46 BDT
Thank you, HTW, for sharing your thoughts. i saw the film ten years ago and posted my review of it a year later. Frankly, I am unable to respond to your comments now but will watch the film again, keeping your comments in mind. I will then take everything into full account and revise my review in ways and to the extent appropriate. Meanwhile, please know that I deeply appreciate that you took the time and made the effort to share your thoughts and feelings. I wish more people did. For now, best wishes and warmest regards.

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Aug 2014 09:12:01 BDT
Hi Robert. I believe that for a better understanding of the film you should read Szpilman's book. Films, of course, can only scratch the surface of a protagonists inner thoughts and feelings and of course we must rely on an actor's talent to help us understand wordless emotions. I really do think Brody does an excellent job with his speechless shock and tragic eyes. You could say his face was made for the part. I can't deny that my understanding of the film was probably subconsciously based on a reading of the book beforehand and a long time interest in Polish history.
As for defining moments in the film I thought the family's decision to stay in Warsaw based on Britain's and France's declarations of war on Germany comes pretty high on the list of candidates. What a mistake that was!
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