The Pianist is the first film director Roman Polanski has made in Poland since his very first feature (Knife in the Water). It's also, according to the press notes, the film he's waited his entire career to make. It's too bad he waited so long because if Polanski had made The Pianist a little earlier into his career, it would have been that much more devastating to watch. But previous films about WWII may have desensitized moviegoers about Nazis and Jews, and Hitler and the Holocaust, and concentration camps and genocide. And that's the opposite intention of any filmmaker who attempts to tackle a picture about the topics listed above.
Because The Pianist won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, expectations are a little high. It's still a good film, but it doesn't really offer anything we haven't seen before. Had The Pianist been the first film about somebody going through hell trying to survive the Nazi experience, you would expect people to be falling all over the film. But it treads ground where others have been.
The Pianist opens in a 1939 Warsaw radio station, where popular pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody, Harrison's Flowers) is performing Chopin live on the air...until German bombs blow the place apart. Wladyslaw runs home to his family, who are about to leave the city, when the radio announces England and France have just declared war on the Germans. Thinking things might take a turn for the better, the Szpilmans decide to stick around.
Of course, that's just the beginning of the humiliation and atrocities suffered by the Szpilmans and the rest of the Jews in Poland. By October 1940, the family was forced to move into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, and eventually forced onto a train ride into the country. Wladyslaw then spends the rest of the film scampering from hiding spot to hiding spot as he watches his city collapse from the window.
Wladyslaw's isolation is the only thing that really separates The Pianist from the scores of other films with similar content. In one torturous scene, Wladyslaw is put up in a room that also houses a piano, but he can't play it because nobody is supposed to know he's there. Other strong positives include cinematographer Pawel Edelman slowly leaching the film of all its color, and the wildly incredible sets and production design, some of which are done on an impossibly grand scale.
But there's still a few negatives. For some reason, the Poles speak English, even though the Germans speak German. And, worst of all, the happy, uplifting ending brings to mind The Sum of All Fears, which used a similar approach even though its body count was somewhere in the millions.
Maybe the Cannes jury ate up The Pianist because it was a true story. Maybe it will be this year's version of A Beautiful Mind. Both are flawed in very different ways and both have very strong lead performances. But neither come close to being the best of the year
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