REVIEW: “The Pianist”

PIANIST poster

One of the things that fascinates me about “The Pianist” is how deeply connected it is to the true life experiences of its director. Roman Polanski has had a colorful life – one which has been severely tarnished by some deplorable behavior. But his childhood is an incredible story of horror, loss, and survival. Polanski and his family were crammed into the Kraków Ghetto along with 15,000 other Jews during the Nazi’s ‘purification’ of Poland.

As a young boy he watched as his father was marched away to a Nazi work camp. His mother was shipped to Auschwitz where she was among the 1.1 million Jews murdered there. Young Polanski managed to escape the Ghetto and survived by living in a barn until the war ended. He would be reunited with his father, but the scars left from the Holocaust would never leave and they heavily influenced much of what we see in “The Pianist”.

The film is directly based on the autobiography of Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. Like Polanski, Szpilman was seperated from his family during the Nazi occupation and found himself desperately struggling to survive. Adrien Brody plays Szpilman and gives a truly revelatory performance that garnered critical praise and earned him an Academy Award. He is in nearly every frame and the depth and range of emotion he manages to convey is staggering.


We first meet Wladyslaw Szpilman in 1939 where he plays piano for a Warsaw radio station. He is there when the Nazis invade and eventually takeover Warsaw. Like many at the time, Wladyslaw and his family at first underestimate the gravity of what has happened, but as the Nazi grip tightens the reality becomes clear. Jews are stripped of their jobs and forced from their homes into the overcrowded Warsaw Ghetto. Thousands of Jews die of starvation, disease, and from all sorts of Nazi brutality.

The Szpilman’s try to find normalcy among the hardships but things only get worse. They are among the thousands of Jew rounded up to be sent to the Treblinka extermination camp. An unexpected act finds Wladyslaw seperated from his family and on his own. The story becomes about survival against the grossest inhumanity.  But at the same time Polanski and writer Ronald Harwood go to great lengths to show actual humanity in many unexpected forms.


One of the most a compelling characteristics of Wladyslaw is that he is no hero. He is no soldier filled with courage and fight. It shines so brightly through Brody’s performance. The frailty and desperation of his character is seen clearer through each new stage of adversity he faces. But even more we see it through his means of survival. There is nothing within Wladyslaw, aside from his will to live, that keeps him alive. Instead it is the dangerous and sacrificial acts of people he meets that helps him along. Every step of the way Wladyslaw’s survival hinges on the compassion and heroism of others. It is an important story thread and the only true glimmers of light in an otherwise dark story.

Everything about “The Pianist” sets it apart as a substantial work and not enough can be said about Polanski’s obvious passion for his subject. Consider the stunning work of his cinematographer Pawel Edelman. He never wastes a scene and many are cleverly shot from Wladyslaw’s perspective. Others wonderfully emphasize the film’s brilliant production design. For Polanski accurately recreating the city was a priority as was putting a  special emphasis on detail. Whether it’s in the small space of an apartment or the broader images of a devastated city. The keen detail stands out.


Polanski’s own experiences allow him to bring a steady seriousness, sincerity, and reverence to “The Pianist”. His vision isn’t hazed by lack of knowledge or understanding. But at the same time he sticks closely to the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman. Even the ending (which some have called contrived) lines up with Szpilman’s experience. Those two components, along with Brody’s unforgettable performance, play a big part in my reaction to “The Pianist”. I see it as a master work on humanity vs. inhumanity, on the resilience and mercy of art, and on the personal horrors brought on by one of the world’s darkest events.

Some critics have complained that “The Pianist” isn’t “Schindler’s List”. Some seemed to want weightier emotion. Some complained that it does a disservice to the larger number of persecuted Jews due to its narrow focus on one man. I can’t line up with any of those criticisms. For me Polanski’s vision is honest, unflinching, and strips away any sentimentality. While it remains hard to embrace Polanski as a man, “The Pianist” makes it easier to embrace him as an artist.




27 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Pianist”

    • He is such a brilliant filmmaker. I love that you show this film in class. This was about the third time I’ve seen this film and I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while. I think sometimes it’s overlooked which is a real shame.

      • I love the sun beams filtering through the window in the house which lights the piano like it’s divine intervention as he plays for the SS Officer. And then the performance! I’m a sucker for the piano anyway, and Chopin’s piece literally saved his life. Polanski’s set design throughout was authentic and bleak. Emilia Fox was perfect in the role as Szpilman ideal woman.

      • The part with the German officer feels so Hollywood. But the fact that it did indeed happen right down to the Chopin piece and the coat is incredible.

  1. I like your opening and closing thoughts, specifically on Polanski the man. I just find it absolutely abhorrent someone who has gone through what he has, and has suffered immeasurably is also capable of turning around and doing something similarly unspeakable to a poor young girl. And yet as a filmmaker he’s something rather impressive. I”m pretty sure Rosemary’s Baby is the only one of his that I’ve seen so far. Oh wait, and Chinatown. Both are fantastic works. This one I haven’t seen but I really ought to rectify that

    • Oh definitely Tom. It is a brilliant piece of cinema. The have been a lot of films dealing with the Holocaust but this is very much its own thing. I love it both technically and narratively. And the performance from Brody is incredible. Can’t praise it enough.

  2. While I prefer the films he did in the 60s and 70s, this is a classic in every way and form. Polanski knocked it out of the park and created something that is devastating, personal, and just enthralling while giving Adrien Brody the performance of his career (aside from his work with Wes Anderson which I hope he continues to do).

    • Great hearing you feel the same way about it as I do. Every adjective you used fits. Each time I’ve watched it I have been blown away. This most recent time had me appreciating it even more than my previous viewings. Such a special film.

  3. I’m glad you liked it… because I didn’t. It’s NOT because I think SCHINDLER’S LIST is better. I mean, I do, but I saw it after this one. If you want to know why I didn’t like it, my review is in my blog.
    “Roman Polanski has had a colorful life – one which has been severely tarnished by some deplorable behavior. But his childhood is an incredible story of horror, loss, and survival”. Ummm… Wasn’t his wife murdered?

    • Some critics wanted to compare it to Schindler’s which is just absurd to me. Doesn’t do justice to either film which are telling two very different stories. I absolutely loved it (obviously). A rare 5 star film for me.

      Yes, Sharon Tate was murdered in 1969 by the Charles Manson family. She was pregnant when she was murdered.

  4. I find it very hard to watch a Roman Polanski picture these days. While I recognize his personal endurance and struggles throughout the years, his cowardice and crimes make it nearly impossible for me to be completely objective when it comes to examining his work; even the Polanski pictures I love like Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby feel tainted by the director’s legacy. It’s probably why I haven’t watched The Pianist; even though I’ve try to convince myself to see it in the past, I really struggle in shaking off my feelings about Polanski when watching his recent work.

    • Understandable. I’m really glad I’ve been able to separate the two even though it isn’t always easy. I think if he was making smug, in-your-face pictures they would be hard for me to digest. But this film (for example) hasn’t an ounce of that which makes it pretty easy to see it as its own independent work. I truly love the film.

      • Yeah, I know what you mean. I still love watching Kramer in Seinfeld, even though I deplore Michael Richard’s racist statements and his weak apology. It is difficult to dissociate the art from the artist; so many celebrities tarnish their reputations with disgusting and inexcusable actions that it’s hard to look at their work without being reminded of their public persona.

      • All true, and this is a bit hypocritical of me but I often find it harder when it comes to actors. Maybe it is cause they are so much more visible.

      • It really just annoys me when so many people try to dismiss the actions of a celebrity based on their output; I remember a couple of years ago a lot of famous filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and even Woody Allen petitioned for Polanski to be released after being arrested in Switzerland because of his legacy. If Polanski wasn’t a famous director, he’d be in jail right now and no one would be defending him.

      • Absolutely agree. While I appreciate the art he creates there is no way he shouldn’t have to answer for what he did. Releasing him when he hasn’t paid for his crime? That’s absurd.

    • YES! It does leave you speechless. And to know all of the truth behind it and how it is presented makes it even more sobering. Powerful film. Glad to hear you appreciate it also.

  5. Brilliant write-up Keith. This is on my Blindspot list for this year, and I can’t wait to see it. Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favourite films of all time, although I will admit to having a lot of trouble watching Polanski’s films as a result of his whole situation.

  6. Pingback: February 2016 Favourites | FILM GRIMOIRE

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