The Pianist (2002), directed by Roman Polanski, is based on the memoirs of Władysław Szpilman, a renowned Polish-Jewish pianist, recounting a miraculous survival through World War II. Beginning with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Władysław (Władek) Szpilman (Adrien Brody) and his family are subjected to a deterioration of living conditions, enforced by increasingly degrading, absurd decrees. Jews are barred access from cafes, shops and most public spaces; even the sidewalk on occasion, illustrated by a memorable scene where Władek’s father (Frank Finlay) is commanded to continue his walk in the gutter.
Their situation in Warsaw escalates by 1940, when the entire Jewish population of the city (over 360 000) is forced to resettle into the Warsaw ghetto. Life becomes a struggle for survival, where Władek is among the more fortunate; playing piano in cafes to support his family, while poverty and disease reign in the streets. Eventually they are rounded up for deportation to Treblinka, during which Władek is pulled aside by a member of the Jewish police, never to see his family again. He joins the laborers left in the ghetto, and helps to smuggle in weapons for the ghetto uprising, managing eventually to escape to the other side.
Originally titled Śmierć Miasta (Death of a City), Szpilman’s memoir was published in 1946, and an expanded edition was re-published in 1998 by Andrzej Szpilman, with another title: The Pianist. It caught the attention of Polanski, who had sought to make a film dealing with the era as a way to address his own past as a Polish Jew from Kraków, who survived the holocaust, but found an autobiographical approach too heavy. In adapting Szpilman’s memoir into a film, (with the contribution of Ronald Harwood, who wrote the screenplay) Polanski found a balance in telling a story parallel to his own, adding details inspired by his own experiences.
The power of a film like The Pianist is in how it manages to raise more questions than answers, and draw comparisons between one’s own life and the story depicted onscreen; life under extreme circumstances. The holocaust is approached with sensitivity, as the narrative outlines Szpilman’s survival in the ruins of Warsaw and leaves out the horrors of the concentration camps. Instead, the focus is on the developments leading to the final solution, the process of de-humanizing the Jews, which led to the holocaust. There are no heroes, just people adapting to their environment, and Władek’s survival is shown to depend upon random acts of kindness, and being in the right place at the right time.
Adrien Brody carries the film with a subtle performance, where his character breaks away from the sphere of affluence and security into disbelief, witnessing a world gone mad almost like a spectator—detached from his surroundings. Brody went through a physical transformation as well as an emotional one in preparation for the role, by losing weight, selling his apartment and car, and isolating himself from media. The Pianist swept up a number of Academy awards, including best male lead (Brody was the youngest actor to receive one), best direction and screenplay.