Sunday, January 22, 2012

"The Pianist:" Brutality and Beauty

Until several of my freshman students began talking to me about it, I'd forgotten all about the movie "The Pianist," which was released in 2002 and won the Palme D'Or.  My students had seen the parts of this movie in eighth grade, during a quarter-long study of the Holocaust and were deeply moved by it. I'd never seen the movie and wanted to be able to talk with them about it.

This is a brutal, magnificent movie. It speaks of the human spirit and its struggle to survive. Based largely on the true story of classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, it gives witness to the life of  gifted Polish pianist, a Jew, who managed to survive in Warsaw during World War II while hundreds of thousands of Jews were exterminated in death camps. Szpilman is portrayed by actor Adrien Brody, then 29, who won an Academy Award for his work.

Szpilman is saved from death by sheer chance and through the help of the Polish resistance. Sustaining him is the music he makes, the music he hears and the music in his imagination.

In the last 40 minutes of this movie, Szpilman appears to be the only human being living in a ruined Warsaw. The soldiers have long lost their humanity. Warsaw looks like a city at the edge of time as we watch Szpilman make his way, sometimes crawling, often frantic through abandoned and bombed apartments in search of food and in a frenetic effort to elude soldiers. Toward the end of the film, starving, he spends what seems like days trying to open a can of pickles.

Polish-French director Roman Polanski, who directed this masterpiece, is himself a Holocaust survivor who lost his mother in the death camps. He discovered Szpilman's story when the man's autobiography, suppressed by the Communists, was republished in the 1990s. After seeing this movie, I now want to read Szpilman's own words. This movie, however, is a true gift and well worth viewing or re-viewing.


  1. I'll have to rent it. I remember when it came out, but I never saw it.

  2. @Kabloona: Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. Let us know what you think of the movie!

  3. Wow, this sounds like one I have to watch! Quite unexpectedly, we met a priest from another nearby parish last night- a priest from Poland who was a student of John Paul II. He was so funny, so gregarious, and then suddenly so serious as he talked about Poland's tumultuous history. It was a beautiful accident to get drawn into that discussion and it made me all the more determined to learn and know more about my family's heritage. Thank you for the recommendation, Allison!

    1. @Dwija: Also, please see my review of "The Year of the Quiet Sun," a Polish language film (with subtitles) by a man who had been friends with JP2. If you have Netflix, you can stream it online. The MOST beautiful movie.

  4. I have had this recommended to me many times and actually have it but haven't watched it yet. It sounds difficult to see but worth it. Thanks for the review!:)