Acclaimed Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who died in Warsaw in 2000 at age 88, survived the Holocaust through an extraordinary series of incidents and coincidences, chronicled in his 1946 memoir. He was saved from transport to the death camps by a Jewish capo. He escaped from the Warsaw ghetto before it crumbled. With unexpected help, he unexpectedly lived. Roman Polanski, who as a child survived the Kraków ghetto and the bombing of Warsaw, has turned that book into The Pianist. (The sensitive script is by English playwright Ronald Harwood.) The result is a movie, and Cannes Palme d’Or winner, of riveting power and sadness, a great match of film and filmmaker — and star, too.
Calmly and passionately addressing his past for the first time (with the clear-eyed power of an artist entitled, with terrible proof of ownership to the telling), Polanski creates a huge, straightforward picture built of countless small, shockingly casual details of brutality, desperation, and kindness. And in the center is the modulated intensity of Adrien Brody in the title role. Szpilman falls from his perch of cultured privilege to the abject scramble of staying alive. But Brody never once sanctifies the struggle or allows the pianist to deserve any more or less awe from us than any of the six million others whose stories Polanski might also have told with equal respect.