It has been over 80 years since World War II erupted in 1939. Yet despite all the decades that have passed, this event remains as important as before, serving as a subject of extensive scholarly research and study as well as material for works of art and literature. Cinema, in particular, has explored the events of World War II from different angles and depicted them in different ways. For instance, whereas some films investigate the root causes of World War II, others focus on aspects such as the effects of the Nuremberg Laws and escape of the Jews. But among the many works that have come out over the years, one such film that truly stands out is The Pianist. Directed by Roman Polanski and released in 2002, this film tells the story of Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman’s journey of despair and survival in Warsaw. As this move review essay will show, this film is not merely a true masterpiece of contemporary cinema; it is also a showcase of cinematic accomplishment, a harrowing yet ultimately inspiring tale of personal triumph, and a tribute to this dark chapter in human history.
The superb technical aspects of Polanski’s film are one of the reasons why it can be considered as a masterpiece of modern cinema. The film simply takes a no holds barred approach to rendering Szpilman’s story. The film, for one, offers a rich recreation of wartime Warsaw. The production is done with care and attention to detail, which plays an important role in transporting the viewer to a different place and time. Getting the setting right is fundamentally important in any film set in another period, and The Pianist makes an excellent job at not only recreating the physical appearance of the city at the time but also capturing the spirit of the era. For another, the film is gorgeously shot. The cinematography is at once intimate in the interest it shows in the hidden lives of its main character, sweeping in its depiction of the city and its eventual ruin, and brutal in its unhesitant portrayal of cruelty and horror. Apart from the production and the cinematography, other elements such as the music and the editing are also worth noting. Perhaps the single most powerful aspect, however, is Adrien Brody’s marvelous performance. Brody’s work in this film is a prime example of the actor as a chameleon. Brody does not just play Szpilman; rather, he inhabits the character, thus blending seamlessly with the narrative and serving as the soul of the work, for which he deserves praises heaped upon him. These are just a few good reasons why this film is revered since its release as among the best rated World War II movies.
More than just a film, however, The Pianist is a tale of personal triumph. The story follows Władysław Szpilman as he barely manages to survive the Holocaust through a combination of luck, kindness from strangers, and his personal will to remain alive. In it we see the horrors of World War II through the eyes of the main character and witness the magnitude of danger posed by racism in society, especially the deeply insidious and destructive views of the Nazis as they play out not only in a grand scale but in the lives of individuals. One might argue that the life story of Szpilman in itself—the very backbone of the film—is already an epic journey, the kind of narrative that can stand on its own without embellishment. There is much truth in this statement. But one must also recognize that it is exactly this astonishing quality of the story that makes it so difficult to tell in film. The vastness and incredibility of Szpilman’s story threaten to overshadow the media by which it is told, and any half-baked attempt to translate this into film would diminish both the story and the film. Thus, it takes real talent to craft a movie that does it justice, it demands greatness that only a few directors ever had, and in this regard Polanski succeeds with such seamlessness that The Pianist becomes not just a movie about the Holocaust but a movie about this one person with a poignantly singular experience of triumph over great adversity.
Finally, the strength of the film also lies in its capacity to play tribute to a very dark chapter in history. While The Pianist is primarily about Władysław Szpilman, it also serves the other role of honoring the victims of the Holocaust. Graphic as the scenes are, it is a necessary choice. Only by depicting the horrors of the Holocaust as they are can the viewer fully understand the degree of the injustice suffered by the victims of the Nazis. The film also brings up other salient issues that can easily fall through the cracks in other renditions of World War II chronicles, including the fact that there were other victims of the Nazis such as homosexuals, Romani people, and people with disabilities that are often relegated to the sidelines of narratives. It is perhaps wrong to say that Polanski’s movie is intended as a lesson on history, but it may as well be considered that for its capacity to illustrate historical events with breadth, depth, and power.
Much praise has been heaped upon The Pianist, and such praises are both accurate and well-deserved. This film is without doubt a landmark in modern cinema as well as the representation of the Holocaust. The successes of this movie are many, and there is no competition among them but only harmony. It is that rare work where all parts come together and bring life to a whole that cannot be reduced into its individual elements. And like the final scene where Szpilman delivers a piano concert accompanied by a full orchestra, his life story is the center of this grand performance.
The Pianist. Directed by Roman Polanski, performances by Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox, and Thomas Kretsch, Focus Features, 2002.