(Originally published 2002)
Perhaps only Roman Polanski could have pulled off "The Pianist," 2002's best film, a blunt, unflinching masterwork from the director of "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby" that exposes a harrowing corner of the Holocaust, strips it bare of sentiment and offers an unnerving meditation on the horror of war and on one man's fight for survival.
As our own troops are deployed for the possibility of another war, the film stands as a gift and a timely reminder from the 69-year-old Polanski, a Polish Jew who experienced the Holocaust firsthand as a 7-year-old boy in the Krakow ghetto.
Indeed, it was there that Polanski's parents were ripped from him by the Germans, divided and taken to separate concentration camps (his father survived but his mother was gassed at Auschwitz), and where Polanski himself learned the terror of dodging German gunfire as he made his own daring escape through a barbed-wire fence and into a ruined world he no longer knew.
If surviving that experience gave Polanski the crucial insight necessary to tell the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), one of Poland's premiere composers and pianists who died in 2000 at the age of 89, then it's the unique worldview and human perspective he culled from that experience that makes "The Pianist" so utterly personal and, at the same time, so coldly detached.
Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the film is based on Szpilman's 1946 memoirs, which were published only two years after his ordeal and--not unlike some of the poetry, music and literature written in the weeks and months following the events of Sept. 11--have a rawness that the passing of time may have muted.
Using that edge--but not seduced or distracted by it--Polanski bears witness to the five most defining years of Szpilman's life, recounting atrocities the director himself likely endured while never once losing his unshakable focus.
Shot in Polanski's native Poland, a location the director has avoided using in a movie since his first film, 1962's "Knife in the Water," "The Pianist" opens in 1939 with the 27-year-old Szpilman playing a Chopin nocturne for a Polish radio station when Nazi bombs blow the hell out of the studio at which he's performing.
Around him, chaos unfolds as the Nazis dig in for the long haul. But Szpilman, innocently believing that all of this will soon pass, initially seems less interested in the threat of war and more interested in the pretty blond cellist (Emilia Fox) he meets on the stairwell during his flight from the building.
His family also believes the Germans will fail, particularly when it's announced via radio that France and Britain have declared war on Hitler. The collective sigh of relief that rises up from the tight-knit Szpilmans is eventually strangled from each as the Jews of Warsaw are herded from their homes by the hundreds of thousands and the film's real horrors begin.
Horror has always been Polanski’s forte, a major thread that carries through much of his work. And so, for the rest of the movie, he holds back nothing, letting loose with a wrenching, often brutal series of images delivered with a matter-of-fact frankness that gives the film such power, it's often humbling and difficult to watch.
Through all the rubble, death, senseless murder and devastation, Polanski never loses sight of Szpilman's journey, which is at once physical as he fights for survival in a world where finding some crumbs or a can of pickles can mean the difference between life or death, and also spiritual as his faith--tested time and again by the Nazis--is sustained by the beauty and truth he finds in music.
In the film's best scene--an instant classic that comes near the end of the movie--all of Szpilman's rage, exhaustion, frustration and long-repressed passion are sprung free when a German officer (Thoman Kretschmann) asks him to play the piano at the house in which Szpilman is hiding.
It is the most poignant, life-affirming moment I’ve seen at the movies in years and Brody, whose genius performance stands as the best of 2002, stumbles a bit before giving it his all, throwing himself into the sublime release of music and allowing us into the internal life of the artist as the artist himself hurls everything he has—everything that’s right with the world and everything that’s left in his soul--straight into the face of madness.