Director, Roman Polanski
2002; running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Adapted from Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiography, The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski, tells the story of Szpilman, a Jewish pianist for Polish Radio, from Warsaw, Poland.
The movie opens during the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. By October 31, 1940, the Nazis have forced all the Jewish residents to abandon their homes and move to the ghetto. The family has to sell its prized possession, the piano, for next to nothing.
Szpilman continues to play for the café society within the ghetto, which leaves him little time for brooding. Aware that the whole family depends on what he earns, he gradually overcomes his despair. Szpilman’s optimism and hope of one day returning to his profession on radio keeps him going. As the Nazis begin to liquidate the ghetto, his family is rounded up and sent to the Treblinka death camp. But Szpilman is spared when a policeman he knows pulls him from the line and urges him to flee
The film closely follows the book and does not gloss over any horrific details, maximizing the viewer’s empathy with Szpilman. Death is so pervasive that the ghetto dwellers become desensitized. Polanski presents the story with cynical irony, but also with compassion.
Polanski goes to great lengths to create a historically accurate film, but adds some graphic details from his own life as a Holocaust survivor. Perhaps because of that, Polanski approaches this material with a calm, fierce authority.
Near the end of the film, Szpilman, while in hiding, is discovered by a Nazi officer. The officer asks his profession. When he learns that Szpilman is a pianist, he asks him to play something on a piano that is sitting in the burned-out building. Szpilman has not played in two and a half years. His stiff, shaky fingers with uncut nails are covered with a thick layer of dirt. Fearing for his life, Szpilman plays the piece flawlessly. The officer, to Szpilman’s great relief, simply walks away. The officer then returns with food, and Szpilman is later spared when the Russians arrive in Warsaw. After the war, Szpilman realizes his dream of returning to his profession on the radio.
The movie portrays Szpilman tenaciously clinging to his hope for a future, separate from the miseries, hardship and horrors he experiences and sees all around him.
This reviewer hopes that, before his death in 2,000, Szpilman found the hope that goes beyond survival in this tragedy-filled world—the promise that Yeshua (Jesus) offers of personal peace in the midst of turmoil, and eternal life.