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TOP 100 MOVIES in 2002!
WON 3 OSCARS: Best Actor (Brody), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay
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Decades after the end of World War II, its subject matter, particularly the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews, remains recurring subject matter for mainstream Hollywood movies. This is due in no small part to the horrifying true stories and the lack of embellishment that is required to bring such stories to the big screen. In some instances, the War is examined through the eyes of many soldiers, as in “Saving Private Ryan,” and in others, the plight of the Jewish people is brought to light through the thousands that suffered, as in “Schindler’s List.”
But few movies have had the profound emotional impact that comes from viewing the nightmare through the eyes of just one man. Yet, that horrifying reality came to be seen through just one survivor’s eyes in 2002’s “The Pianist.” Directed by Roman Polanski, “The Pianist” shrinks the macrocosm of the Holocaust into the microcosm of one man’s experiences. That man is Wladyslaw Szpilman, as portrayed by Adrien Brody. To make the story even more compelling and more difficult to just walk away from, it is based on actual events.
Szpilman, a man in his twenties, lives with his three grown up siblings – two sisters and a brother – along with their elder parents in Warsaw. As the story begins, Szpilman plays piano for Polish radio, but when the German army advances into Poland, the family’s life is turned upside down. They are forced to move to the Warsaw Ghetto, where living conditions are absolutely horrible. The family of six is forced to live in a three-room apartment. As the Nazis build a fence around the Jewish Ghetto, their cramped living quarters become almost unbearable.
Conditions for the Szpilman’s, and the thousands of others in the Warsaw ghetto, continue to deteriorate. Curfews are implemented, Jews are required to wear identifying patches on their clothing, and most terrible of all, the Nazi Stormtroopers periodically terrorize the ghetto by seeking out and assassinating entire families. The Szpilman’s watch in horror as neighbors across the alleyway are sadistically slaughtered. More so than the rest of his family, Wladyslaw is able to keep his cool. He is able to keep his horror, anger and anguish bottled in, and once again, it’s his music that seems to be his sanctuary, his only relief from the unspeakable horrors all around him.
Vladyslaw’s sister, Halina, and Henryk are taken to a Nazi work camp, and the fears are that they shall never return. Yet, some weeks later, Halina and Henryk are returned to their family. The Szpilman’s are overjoyed by their safe return, but here, the viewer can infer something much more ominous. Have certain family members been returned safely merely to placate their families? Is this all orchestrated to give the Jewish families a false sense of hope? A couple of the old-timers discuss that perhaps they are just labor camps after all, but another elder Jew chimes in and insists that they’re slowly being sent to their deaths.
That moment is short-lived. The Nazi SS rounds up nearly all of the remaining Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and load them onto train cars intended for livestock. Wladyslaw’s life is spared by Itzhak, a Pole-turned-Nazi sympathizer. Itzhak pulls Wladyslaw from the line to the train cars and tells him to just get away, to walk, to “don’t run,” away from the staging area. It is a decision that most humans could not bear to make – does Wladyslaw walk away, or does he stay with his family. Itzhak says that he’s “saved your life! Now just go! Go!” With that, Szpilman walks away, leaving his entire family to board the trains to the Nazi death camps.
“The Pianist” captures with painful clarity the impossible decisions that common people will someday face. How many of us would save our own lives, and how many would stay with our families? It is a question that one can easily ask over and over with each subsequent viewing of this film. What would you have done?
Szpilman stays behind in the Warsaw Ghetto and joins a hard-labor work force. In his hungry, weakened condition, Szpilman cannot keep up with the intense physical labor, and it seems likely that his Nazi guards are going to simply execute him rather than tolerate his ineptness. In an act of desperation, Szpilman flees the Warsaw Ghetto, and with the help of friends on the outside – fellow, non-Jewish musicians, he goes into hiding. Szpilman is locked in a tiny apartment and visited infrequently by his handlers with food and water. When Szpilman is discovered, he must escape to a second hideaway – this time, an apartment right smack in the middle of Nazi territory. Literally right across the street from a Nazi hospital. Szpilman’s protectors insist that here – in the lion’s den – is where Wladyslaw will be safest.
Szpilman’s food and water grow sparse, and he is severely weakened by gout and malnourishment. When his hiding place is again discovered, Szpilman barely escapes out a back door even as Nazi tanks demolish the building all around him. Szpilan dodges falling bricks, dead bodies and mortar as he flees the building. Eventually, Szpilman settles into the now-abandoned Nazi hospital. But this building is soon likewise fireblasted by the Germans. Szpilman escapes into the Warsaw Ghetto – blocks and blocks, miles and miles, of bombed-out buildings. Warsaw has become an apocalypse, a hell on earth.
While hiding in one of the bombed-out buildings, Szpilman is discovered by a Nazi, Captain Hosenfeld. Szpilman is terrified beyond words, certain he’s about to be shot on the spot. Instead, Hosenfelt asks what Szpilman does for a living. Szpilman explains he is – or was – a pianist. Hosenfeld is skeptical. He leads Szpilman to a piano and demands that he plays. As Szpilman begins to play, he seems shaky, due probably to his weakness and his nerves. The audience worries that he’s going to blow this and get killed for lying. But then, Szpilman comes alive. He plays an incredibly moving piece that brings tears to Hosenfeld’s eyes.
In the coming days, Hosenfeld brings Szpilman food and water and warmer clothes. Just days later, the Russians arrive in Poland, having successfully defeated the Nazis, and Szpilman is free. Hosenfeld, meanwhile, has been taken P.O.W., and despite Szpilman’s attempts to save the man that had saved him, Wladyslaw never sees Captain Hosenfeld again.
“The Pianist” was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and it won for Best Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood), Best Director (Roman Polanski), and Best Actor (Adrien Brody). Brody was one of the youngest to ever win Best Actor, and he was up against such stalwarts as Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, Daniel Day Lewis and Nicolas Cage. The Academy’s recognition reaffirmed the fact that Brody’s performance was one for the ages. His ability to portray Szpilman at the depths of despair, but also his refusal to ever give up, his indominitable human spirit, are as moving the fiftieth viewing as they were the first. The film’s cinematography magnificently captured the horrors of the destruction of Warsaw, and the set designers conveyed to the audience just how cramped Szpilman’s hiding places truly were.
At first glance, “The Pianist” might seem too bleak and depressing for most viewers, but at its core, the movie is about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of unspeakable adversity and tragedy. Were it not for the once-in-a-lifetime performance of Adrien Brody, the movie probably would have failed in conveying said message. But Brody’s Szpilman reminds us that on a day-to-day basis, whatever adversities we may face, we can endure. Some movies are meant to entertain, or to bring important issues to our attention, but others, like “The Pianist,” are meant to inspire. Thanks to Polanski’s direction and Adrien Brody’s overwhelming range of emotions, “The Pianist” will forever remain one of the most inspirational movies that Hollywood has ever produced.