THE PIANIST

2.5 Stars
Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 127 minutes
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At the risk of being called an anti-Semite, I would like to propose a moratorium on Holocaust movies. According to the Christian Science Monitor, there have been 170 movies on the Holocaust in the past 13 years–no other historic subject has received such an extraordinary cinematic focus. While it would be crass to discount the importance of the subject, at the same time one has to admit there is some degree of excess going on here.

The latest film on the subject is “The Pianist,” which is Roman Polanski’s new work and his first production made in his native Poland since his 1962 breakthrough “Knife in the Water.” “The Pianist” is based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish composer and pianist who survived the deprivation of the Warsaw Ghetto and escaped deportation to Treblinka, barely surviving in a series of safe locations and abandoned buildings within Nazi-occupied Warsaw for two-and-a-half years. At many times, Szpilman’s survival came by extraordinary accident and chance encounters, including a German officer who inexplicably provided him with food and shelter during the final days of the Warsaw occupation.

While Szpliman’s story and will to stay alive was truly remarkable, the problem with “The Pianist” is the problem with the genre itself: if you’ve seen “Schindler’s List” or The Shop on Main Street or Life is Beautiful or “The Hiding Place” or “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” or “The Diary of Anne Frank” or “Europa, Europa” or either the German or American version of Jakob the Liar or “The Grey Zone” or “Shoah” or “As If it was Yesterday” or “The Boat is Full” or the TV mini-series “Holocaust” or “Kapo” or “The Pawnbroker” or “The Man in the Glass Booth” or “Night and Fog” or any of the other hundred-odd films on the Holocaust, then you’ve seen “The Pianist.” Believe me, it’s all there on the screen…and you’ve seen it all before.

However, “The Pianist” offers two very unusual elements not common to this genre (and for very good reason). The first is the strange emphasis on the role of the Jewish auxiliary police used by the Nazis to keep order in the ghetto. These individuals (identified as “collaborators” in the film’s press notes) are shown to be as thuggish as their Nazi overlords, though their level of importance is fairly overdone here. Second and more disturbing is the depiction of the Polish people’s attitude towards their Jewish neighbors.

Except for a single character (a shrewish busybody who discovers Szpliman hiding in a vacant apartment), “The Pianist” presents a Polish population which seemed to go out of their way to aid the Jews and even claimed to be ennobled by the Jewish bravery in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Of course, anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Polish history will have problems with this blowtorching of history (the Jewish Holocaust survivors who returned to Poland were greeted in 1946 with a gruesome state-sanctioned pogrom); while there were Poles who did aid Jews during the war, they were clearly a tiny minority. No one could ever confuse wartime Poland for wartime Denmark.

On a technical standpoint, “The Pianist” makes intelligent use of CGI technology to recreate the bombed-out remains of Warsaw. Pawel Edelman’s cinematography and production designer Allan Starski’s eye for detail brilliantly captures the violent moods of this turbulent time. The acting is a mixed bag: Adrien Brody, as Szpilman, keeps the same gaunt and soulful countenance throughout the film and this gets monotonous, especially when he is alone on screen for long stretches of time and he is failing to respond to any of the various plot twists and developments. Frank Finlay as Szpilman’s father and Ed Stoppard as his hot-headed brother seem to be vying for overacting honors, though Thomas Kretschmann’s performance as the German officer who saves Szpilman brings quiet dignity to an underdeveloped role and Maureen Lipman as Szpilman’s tragic mother struggling to maintain her pride is a small and subtle gem of a performance.

For the record, Roman Polanski was a child in wartime Poland and escaped from the bombing of Warsaw and imprisonment in the Krakow Ghetto. It is impossible not to doubt the sincerity he brought to “The Pianist.” One wishes, though, that “The Pianist” could have been made earlier in his career, when Holocaust films were less prevalent and when it could have made a genuine artistic impact. Instead, it seems like just another Holocaust movie…and the next one, Costa-Gavras’ “Amen,” is due out in a month’s time.



Posted on December 12, 2002 in Reviews by
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10 Comments on "THE PIANIST"

  1. Camillia on Sat, 14th Aug 2010 3:40 pm 

    A plethora of movies related to the same topic does not warrant an immediate cessation of such productions. There are many trashy, romantic comedies but hardly anyone is calling for a stop to their creation. Your problem, Mr Hall, is that you wish to stifle artistic creativity in the name of “keeping things under quota”.

    Who are you to tell filmmakers what to make and what not to make? It is the very freedom that Holocaust survivors hoped and dreamed for that you wish to control. The irony would be hilarious, if it weren’t so pathetically sad.

    Moving on to your other critics, if you’ve ever read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl you would comprehend the importance of the Jewish auxiliary police and the Polish aid. This film conveys the message that, no, not all Jews are good people. And no, not all Polish people are bad people. No one is making outstanding statements about ALL of the Jews nor ALL of the Poles as a whole. It demonstrates that NOT EVERYONE FOLLOWS THE STEREOTYPE OF THEIR GROUP.
    The Jews, who were so horrifically mistreated during the Holocaust, also had their own share of bad apples. Some people, under desperate circumstances, can turn into monsters.
    The Poles, who did play a part in turning the other cheek to the Holocaust, had a few individuals who were willing to bravely aid Jews through their plight.

    It is a complete reversal of the standard. We are so often taught to believe that Jews were the helpless victims, that everyone else during the time was filled with malicious evil. But it is not so in this movie.

    If you don’t like watching Holocaust movies because you are bored with the topic, or simply a closet anti-Semite, then why do you watch them anyways?


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  2. John on Sun, 29th Aug 2010 10:57 pm 

    Yes, Phil Hall, your “risk” did make you do come off as either an antisemite, or, at the very least, a simpleton via your telegraphing the message that there CAN be a limit to the need to continue to explore, educate new generations, and constantly remind and promote ongoing rethinking and re-examination for older generations of some of the worst events in our history. How it is possible not only for such an unexplicably horrific example of genocide as the Holocaust to occur, but also the equally inexplicable horror that it occurred with the knowledge and the complacency of SO MUCH of the world? Further, your call for a “moratorium” on Holocaust Films implies that we humans have learned our lessons, while genocides after the Holocaust occurred, continue to occur, have been, and continue to be allowed to occur in full witness of the rest of the world: let’s not forget the encampment, torture, and slaughter of millions of Cambodian citizens by the Khmer Rouge while it received active support by the West to the extent that the U.S. and several western countries voted for the Khmer Rouge to represent Cambodia in the United Nations, and the U.S. and U.K. military training and support via supplies and arms to them; the systematic mass executions of Bosnian men and boys, mass organized repeated rape of Bosnian women and girls by Serb extremists in the former Yugoslavia televised in color to an under-reactive world – which was able to avoid intervention by prohibiting officials from calling the murders “genocide” in favor for the more acceptable term “ethnic cleansing”; the mass organized slaughter of millions of Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda which was organized and largely coordinated by government radio broadcasts and hate propaganda. The French, supporting the Hutu government, reportedly recommended that its image be “cleaned up” by avoidance of leaving bodies lying in open. This resulted in radio-broadcast instructions by government leaders to Hutu participants to concentrate killings in buildings such as schools and churches, and covering up bodies in killing fields with banana leaves to deter aerial photography of the dead. UN countries encouraged officials to use euphemisms such as “failed state”,”civil war”, “tribal violence” rather than “genocide” the latter requiring committment to action. The U.S. was asked by undermanned and struggling peace keepers in Rwanda to lead a campaign to knock out the radio broadcast system. The U.S. government refused on the basis that suppressing free speech goes against American values; U.S. support of Saddam Hussein while he murdered millions of his own citizens including mass gasings of the Kurds. Need I say more? My deepest apologies for my own ignorance in not naming other mass atrocities past and present. Evil extemeists with inhuman ethics capable of sponsoring mass murder programs will likely be of no shortage for a long time to come, but what about the rest of us? How many shocking reminders and creeative new ways of presenting some of humanity’s darkest history – via film, documentary, news media, or writing – will be needed until the silent majority finally decide that genocide is horrific enough that it must be combatted rather than re-named regardless of the sacrifice? Mr. Hall, once I live in a world in which the majority of its people actively oppose genocide (and its synonyms) such as the Holocaust, reflected by, for example, a United Nations that follows its own rules and is empowered by this world majority in a multinational collaboration to aggressively stomp out mass murders and remove and prosecute their sponsors, I may not be as insulted by your “enough already” message – the “real threat” here.


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  3. d kiernan on Sat, 4th Sep 2010 1:22 am 

    John on Sun, 29th Aug says it well. This is a GREAT film. By the way, Hall, there’s nothing “inexplicable” about the German officer helping out the Jew. As anyone cd see, the officer was a thoughtful man, was quite impressed with the quality of the Jew, and not everyone acts according to what stereotypes some people may hold about them. After all, we have not all yet been assimilated by the BORG. As a matter of fact, the officer’s departure from the usual way of acting is the sort of thing that happens frequently toward the end of any war, or even toward the end of a military group’s tour of duty someplace. Did you ever hear of FIGMO?


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  4. Amy R. Handler on Sat, 4th Sep 2010 11:14 am 

    Putting aside the whole Polanski controversy, I must agree that this is a superb film in every way. I also think it is dangerous to cease production on any films that concern history.


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  5. Jack Hanley on Sun, 5th Sep 2010 5:38 pm 

    While your skill with film reviews is up for debate, your historical observations are not- they are deplorable.
    Anti-Polonism has had a long history and I see that it remains alive and well. A few items for your enlightenment-
    1. Poland had the world’s largest pre-war population of Jews in the world…for a reason. Poland maintained- from its inception- Europe’s most tolerant stance on Jews (as opposed to Western Europe)…so much so that for over 5 centuries it was crudely referred to by Western Europeans as “paradisus Iudaeorum” (Jewish Paradise”.
    2. You fail to recognize that Poland was JOINTLY invaded by both the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939- who split the nation into zones of occupation. Both the regimes of Hitler and Stalin began a systematic destruction of Jews in the territories.
    3. The Kielce Program was NOT a “state-sponsored” genocide as you report, but carried out by a mob under the rule of the occupying Soviet puppet regime (the Soviet Union has the highest percentage of anti-Jewish pogroms of any nation on earth) in a region where there was historical collusion with Poles of Jewish ethnicity with the invading Soviet regime against Poles of Gentile persuasion. These isolated events more greatly reflect the manipulation of ethnic groups under the dichotomy of two occupiers than genuine racial tension.
    3. You systematically define all Jewish ethnic groups as uniquely “Jewish” and ethnic Poles as “Polish”- while failing to understand that both before and after the Nazi occupation a large segment of Polish society self-identified as Polish in nationality and Jewish by religion. Wladyslaw Szpilman himself only ever referred to himself as “a Pole”.
    4. The “mass collaboration” myth you keep promoting has been a known – but persistent- urban legend (especially in New York Jewish academia). However, the Israeli War Crimes Commission clearly stated that Poland ranks the LOWEST of all European nations- Denmark included- in collaboration occurrences with the Nazis: the IWCC reports that “less than 0.1 percent of gentile Poles collaborated with the Nazi occupiers”- less than France, Denmark, and 16 other European nations.
    5. While 3 million Poles of Jewish ethnicity perished under the Nazi occupation, so did 3 million Poles of Gentile persuasion.
    6. Due to Poland’s historic attitude toward their Jewish minority, Poland remained the ONLY OCCUPIED EUROPEAN NATION that mandated a MANDATORY DEATH PENALTY for helping Jews.
    7. Yad Vashem officially recognizes the number of non-Jewish Poles involved in ANY type of rescue, hiding, or aiding of Jews under Nazi occupation as 3 MILLION people- your phrasing of Poles who aided Jews as “…a tiny minority” is slanderous, insulting, and historically inaccurate.
    8. Nazi documents testify that over 100,000 Poles of non-Jewish persuasion were executed by the Nazis for “…the express crime of assisting Jews”.
    9. Yad Vashem officially credits the actions of the Polish non-Jewish citizenry with “…saving the lives of over 450,000 Jews during the Holocaust”.
    10. By nationality, Poles make up- BY FAR- the largest percentage of those awarded the title of “Righteous Among Nations”- with Poles making up 25% of ALL TITLES OF RIGHTEOUS AMONG NATIONS alone.
    11. Of the 22 thousand TOTAL Europeans granted the title of “Righteous Among Nations” for aiding Jews during the Holocaust, Poles were awarded a full 6,195 titles.
    If Mr. Szpilman’s true accounts seem disturbingly at odds with your own construction of Polish “character” than this, I fear, is a greater reflection of your own prejudice and racial ignorance than his.

    Jack Hanley
    History Dept., University of Colorado-Boulder


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  6. Phil Hall on Mon, 6th Sep 2010 9:53 am 

    I am not certain why this five-year-old review is suddenly becoming the subject of a new debate. I have not seen the film since my initial screening, and my opinion of the film remains unchanged. For people who wish to learn more about anti-Semitism in Poland, I would recommend this link for information on the pre-war years(http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Total/Polish%20Antisemitism.htm) and this link (from last month’s news) on the post-war years (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3931288,00.html). The Yad Vasehm website provides a fully comprehensive understanding of what transpired during wartime. As for the reference to the “New York Jewish academia,” please be aware that I am a New England Episcopalian with no connections to academia.


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  7. Phil Hall on Mon, 6th Sep 2010 9:55 am 

    My error – this is an eight-year-old film review, not a five-year-old review – which makes the renewed interest all the more curious.


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  8. Mark Bell on Mon, 6th Sep 2010 10:53 am 

    It’s been interesting to me too, Phil, that while we have new reviews and features on the site daily, the content most discussed is very, very old; often commented on and discussed as if it were written just yesterday. Look at the comments telling Gore to hang up his job as critic due to his “Donnie Darko” review. It’s been 9 years since he wrote that review!

    Don’t get me wrong; I want people to talk about the content on the site, new or old. I just wish I knew why the focus has been predominantly on the old, s’all. Is it because people are finding the site due to Google searches, or Netflix links?


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  9. Jack Hanley on Mon, 6th Sep 2010 9:36 pm 

    An addendum to suggested reading material.

    “Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in
    Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture,”
    by Danusha V. Goska, 2010 Academic Studies Press, Boston

    “Rethinking Poles and Jews: Troubled Past, Brighter Future”
    Edited by Robert Cherry and Annamaria Orla-Bukowska
    Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

    “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering”
    by William D Rubinstein

    “Europe at War 1939–1945: No Simple Victory- Enduring Myths of WWII”
    by Norman Davies. Macmillan


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  10. Scott C. on Sun, 21st Nov 2010 1:08 am 

    The renewed interest might have something to do with the recent rise in popularity of Netflix Streaming and The Pianist being a movie you can watch instantly. I know personally it’s a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for years but until tonight never got around to it.

    That said, I’m not convinced the problem is with the WWII-era movies…I think The Pianist’s biggest flaw is that nothing really happens. I mean, Adrian’s character doesn’t grow one iota during the film — he is basically the same guy before the events vs. after them (despite all the horrific stuff that went on for 5+ years).

    What’s even more troubling is how so much of the film is negative. And yes, I understand it’s a “war” movie so it shouldn’t be positive…but really, most of what I saw was footage after footage of random people getting shot and Adrian starving to death. There was no rhyme or reason to any of it – and while some may argue that it’s because “war is like that” – I happen to think it’s because the Director couldn’t explain it.

    You know the old saying, “Don’t tell us, show us?” well the opposite can be true too — The Pianist offers lots of imagery, lots of characters and lots of chances for something unexpected to happen — but instead nothing much of anything occurs. I don’t know about you, but I was thinking the movie would be about a Jewish guy who remained alive (in the presence of the enemy) BECAUSE of his talents. Instead, it’s just about him hiding, like any other Jewish person at the time.

    If you want to watch a grown man die of starvation for 2+ hours with some random bits of music thrown in to justify the title, watch The Pianist. If you want to watch much better WWII era films, try Schindler’s List, Downfall, Grave of the Fireflies, etc.


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