Some memories should never be forgotten; some subjects should never be off the proverbial table. Europe during World War II may be the most well-mined thematic cave but that is because there are more tales to be told from this era than any of us can dream of. A time in world history that was very ugly can offer little but inspiration to share these stories in the hope of expressing that which is often inexpressible- the true horror of man's inhumanity to man.
The Pianist is such a tale. Long and exhausting, this is the sort of unsentimental, extreme depiction of struggle and survival that strikes awe as it conjures tears. Many have tried but it took Roman Polanski, an actual survivor of Hitler's Polish Ghetto, to effectively convey the severity of this time.
Rather than give us his story he opted to film the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a well known pianist who watches his home, his family, every material possession and his own physical stability get annihilated by the invasion of the Nazis. Shipped from his home to the Ghetto to a series of hide outs, Wladyslaw encounters near capture and close calls so often we feel it is only a matter of time before he is captured or killed. Countless bodies fall around him, so many get killed by the random brutality of the Germans. It is harrowing to watch as a young woman gets shot just for asking where she is being led. It is draining to see how hungry Wladyslaw gets and how desperate the final chapters of his struggle are. The moments of the film that offer optimism are strong, though, and as is the case with most of Polanski's best work, this is not a negative film. Taking the entire story into perspective this is actually a tale of the human spirit and how it can be starved, beaten, and ravaged beyond recognition but not destroyed.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker the optimism might sink the film and rob it of any credibility (Jakob the Liar,) but as always Polanski handles the material with the prowess of a master. This is the comeback he needed after the mediocrity of The Ninth Gate and the moderate reception of Death and the Maiden (a truly underrated film.) Moments of the film rekindle memories of his earlier efforts. As we see Wladyslaw suffering alone in an apartment serving as hide-out, we remember Repulsion. The feelings of isolation, fear and shifting of real to surreal resembles everything from Rosemary's Baby to The Tenant. In other words, this is Polanski returning to the level of greatness we have come to expect.
Adrian Brody delivers a convincing performance that should generate a nomination, yet at no time did I feel as if the film, or anyone in it, was pandering to the academy- a rare thing in holocaust films. Nothing felt forced, everything happens naturally progressing from paranoia and fear to utter hopelessness to the moment of survival that should be glorious but of course could never be. The Pianist is a marvelous accomplishment.