Truth can be and often is stranger than fiction and so it is with the true story of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who through chutzpah and luck managed to escape the clutches of the uber-efficient Nazi death machine. His experiences have been rendered with a melancholy poetry by Roman Polanski, who as a child escaped the Warsaw Ghetto.
Szpilman before the war was a nationally renowned musician. At he start of the film, he’s playing Chopin on Polish radio just as World War II begins and bombs drop all around the radio studio, knocking it off the air, and knocking Szpilman’s life into a downward spiral. Little by little, Szpilman, his parents, his two sisters and his brother are subjected to the Nazi process of separating the Jewish population of Warsaw from the rest of the inhabitants. Starting with restaurants and parks being closed to them and then, gradually, too late for protest or escape, they are forbidden to keep more than a pittance in the way of cash, then they must wear a Star of David on their arms, then they’re moved to the Warsaw Ghetto. In one telling moment, Szpillman’s father, played with gentle dignity by Frank Finlay, talks of how they can use the same tricks to survive this war as they did the last one. It hasn’t sunk in how very different this war is, and how dire their situation is. When it does, he rails against the American Jews for not helping them.
As Szpillman, Adrien Brody echoes the film’s tone of stunned disbelief about what is happening to him. With a delicate mouth and large eyes that see and feel too much, he captures the angst of knowing first-hand too much horror and not being able to comprehend it, only to react to it. Brody threw himself into this role with more than just his acting chops, paring down to 130 pounds on his already wiry frame, he becomes skeletal, with veins bulging from his arms and a fragility that is palpable. His performance is a marvel of wary tenacity and unquenchable humanity.
Through quirks of fate, Szpilman is spared the death camps, only to go into hiding in abandoned apartments, trusting sympathetic Poles to protect him in a world where an act of kindness can be a death sentence. The same Poles who told him how awful it was that the Nazis were targeting Jews, and then stood by and did nothing.
Szpilman becomes a voyeur to the horror he witnesses through windows and half-closed doors that lead to a world that has become a death trap. Battles rage, Nazis march, and civilians are mowed down as he watches helplessly. Polanski’s depiction of life in the Warsaw Ghetto is a series of disturbing images framed with the urgency of people desperate to survive, driven to colloborate, or even disconnecting from reality, lapping up gruel from the gutter, or stepping over the corpses of those who have starved to death with the detachment of avoiding a mud puddle. And yet amid the usual roster of sadism, there are notes of unexpected poignancy, as Nazis harass a group of Jewish prisoners on the street, a Christmas tree can be glimpsed through a window, when Szpilman is left alone in yet another hiding place and told to be quiet at all costs, he sits at the piano that beckons to him and begins to play, his fingers the barest of centimeters from the keys.
Polanski tells the story in dark colors and a straightforward fashion. These images don’t need any melodramatic embellishment. And in this way, he is not cheapening the story by appealing to our pity. The people depicted are beyond all that now. What he has this film asks of us is to bear witness that such things happened in a civilized place, to never forget that they can and do happen still.