Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (now out on HD DVD from Universal Home Video) is based on the memoirs of Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a winsome Jewish man revered for his piano performances on 1930s Polish public radio who lives with his close-knit family in an upscale flat in central Warsaw. The idyllic lifestyle of Wladyslaw and his family dramatically changes when Poland is invaded by Germany. Germany’s constant bombing on Warsaw begins to take its toll on the city’s citizens, and step-by-step, as the Nazis continue to infiltrate and occupy the country, Jews are being branded and set apart from their neighbors, first imprisoned in a ghetto and then eventually sent off to concentration camps for extermination.
When the time comes for the Szpilman family to be forcibly boarded onto one of the death camp-bound trains, Wladyslaw finds himself separated from his family thanks to a Polish officer who knows him. As Warsaw continues to become a bombed-out ghost of a city, the young musician struggles to survive on his own, despite receiving occasional help from non-Jews. The following four years prove to be the ultimate test of survival for Wladyslaw, who manages to avoid capture by the Nazis and death largely by his own will to survive. It’s a struggle punctuated by long, silent, languid stretches and filled with the imagined piano music that inspires the young man to keep going no matter what.
Polanski, himself a survivor of the Holocaust (he escaped the Krakow ghetto when he was seven), never hits the viewer over the head with the horrific events of the Shoah (acts of violence are frequent and graphic, but are never drawn out or dwelled upon) nor does he resort to cheap melodrama or clichéd Hollywood characterizations to elicit an emotional response. Along with screenwriter Ronald Harwood, production designer Allan Starski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman, Polanski perfectly captures the vivid details and point of view of its main character that made the book so unforgettable.
But it’s the subtle, remarkable work by Adrien Brody in the lead role that makes every one of the aforementioned facet fall into place and work so well together. Free of dialogue for a large majority of the second half of the film, the Oscar winner perfectly channels Szpilman’s fears, desperation, love of music and determination to survive through body language and carefully orchestrated facial expressions. It’s a performance whose effects creeps up on the viewer and haunt one long after the film ends. Brody is backed by an excellent supporting cast that includes Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman as Wladyslaw’s parents, Ed Stoppard as his brother Henryk and Thomas Kretschmann as Hosenfeld, the sympathetic German officer who helps Szpilman survive toward the end of the war.
In my opinion, The Pianist was not only the best film of 2002 but also one of the best films of the decade as well. Roman Polanski directs with a focused, clear-eyed brilliance we haven’t seen from him since 1974’s Chinatown and is backed by a superb cast and crew that do justice to an extraordinary true tale of survival. Much like Steven Spielberg did with his 1993 masterpiece, Schindler’s List, Polanski balances the brutal with the inspirational, showing us how even in the darkest of times, the human spirit can and will prevail.
The 2003 standard DVD release from Universal Home Video of The Pianist boasted a solid picture and audio presentation, and the HD DVD only improves on that. The print used is in excellent shape, and the 1080p/VC-1 encode is rich in detail, contrast, black levels and, when there is actually some, color. Compression artifacts and video noise are never issues. Universal Home Video’s HD DVD catalog releases have been hit and miss, but this definitely falls into the “hit” category.
On the audio front, there are three tracks to choose from: 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, 5.1 English Dolby Digital and 5.1 French Dolby Digital. I didn’t get a chance to check out the French audio track, but the two English tracks are both rock solid. Center-channel dialogue is loud and clear, and the right and left front speakers perfectly convey the film’s sound effects and musical score. Surrounds are used sparingly and the bass, while not consistent, is nicely used throughout the film’s 150-minute running time. Overall, the TrueHD track has the advantage in terms of clarity over the Dolby Digital track, but either one is more than capable of getting the job done.
There were only two supplements to be had on the 2003 SD DVD release of The Pianist: the 39-minute documentary “Story of Survival” and the theatrical trailer. For the HD DVD, only the documentary has been ported over (I really would like to know why studios continue to ditch theatrical trailers). Presented in 480p full-frame video in decent enough condition, Story of Survival covers a lot of important ground in a very short amount of time. The production of the film is covered via behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew, while Polanski offers recollections not only on making the film, but also on the horrific events he witnessed and endured as a child during the Holocaust and how they helped shape this movie. Add to this footage of the real-life Szpilman performing in concert and archival footage of Poland during the Holocaust, and you have an excellent, if all too brief documentary that is above and beyond your usual Hollywood studio puff piece.
The Pianist is a masterpiece. Not only is this the finest work put on film by Roman Polanski (and that is saying a lot considering this is the man who brought us Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, among others), it is also one of the best films I have seen made about the Holocaust. The downbeat subject matter makes the film a tough watch at times, but in the end one can not help but feel uplifted by the extraordinary fight for survival that Wladyslaw Szpilman endured during the darkest hours of the Twentieth Century. Universal Home Video’s HD DVD presentation of the film is excellent, and comes highly, highly recommended.
– Shawn Fitzgerald