World War II Marathon: The Pianist (2002)

Is film #45 in the World War II Marathon better than Schindler’s List, that seems to be the massive debate after all!

Screenplay By: Ronald Harwood
Directed By: Roman Polanski

The sledgehammer analogy can be used to describe a movie of a higher quality and a movie one finds to be of the lesser variety. In a movie that employs the sledgehammer technique its points will be hammered home no matter what. The question becomes whether or not those sledgehammer blows are delivered in a fashion that helps or hurts the film. In the case of The Pianist its unrelenting sledgehammer strikes of bleakness, despair and reality undoubtedly help this 2002 Roman Polanski feature. Over and over again Polanski reaches into the hearts and souls of mankind and pulls out the most depraved acts one can think of. But, they are real acts, they happened, we know they did, we know that the bleakness and the despair that The Pianist is stuck in is all too real. The truth of the picture Polanski has made, the tale he has decided to tell, imbues every sledgehammer strike with a piercing quality, but a piercing quality that helps the film to the nth degree.

The Pianist is unrelenting in its realism, the brutality of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s world knows no falsities or half truths. As the stakes of this Holocaust picture become clear, I couldn’t look away, no matter how hard I wanted to. My girlfriend wanted to look away as well, The Pianist tested her stomach in a way that few movies can, yet she watched and watched and watched. The reason for this is simple, neither of us turned away from the ugliness on screen because it was so real. Fictional violence can be horrific, it can be well done, but when we know that the violence on screen is anchored to real events it touches a different place within us. I don’t like going to that place, I’m sure my girlfriend doesn’t either, but once there it’s nearly impossible to look away. The world of The Pianist is not a fiction you can easily escape from, it is harsh reality, it is a shameful past, it is the worst of humanity, it is the nightmare that you live through rather than sleep through.

This is where the comparison I spoke of in my teaser comes into play. There is a large debate among movie aficionados over whether Schindler’s List or The Pianist is the better Holocaust movie. I don’t know why it happened or when it happened, but at some point in time a majority of the film going community declared those two pictures as the definitive Holocaust films. I’m not sure if that is the case, and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that a part of me is sure some smaller pictures on the Holocaust are being overlooked in favor of two popular behemoths. Be that as it may, between the two films that some segments of the film community debate over, I would have to say I prefer The Pianist. Its brutal realism plays much better for me than the gross exaggerations of reality found in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. That’s not to say that Schindler’s List is a bad movie, it is a movie I like a great deal, but when it comes to handling the Holocaust I prefer the tactics of stoic reality employed by Polanski over the nuanced manipulations that Spielberg brings to the table.

The above comparison shouldn’t matter all that much however, because The Pianist is a film that stands on its own merits. It is a powerful film, but it is powerful without Polanski providing much flash. He lets lead actor Adrien Brody loose and films him. It sounds simple, but so much could have gone wrong with that attempt. Polanski films the world of Poland during World War II as he knew it personally, and avoids attempts to pull on the heartstrings of his audience by sticking with his gritty and realistic approach throughout. It was a gamble, the amount of violence and irrational brutality that populates The Pianist could have turned audiences away. But, on this wayward viewer, it had the opposite effect. I was pulled in by what I was seeing on the screen, the actions of the Germans, and even of Szpilman, may have been highly irrational at times but I believed every second of what I witnessed in The Pianist.

Polanski could have made a slightly tighter film, especially during the middle section. It’s not a major detriment but The Pianist does have a stretch where the film slows considerably. It is proof that Polanski has made a quality film that he recovers from that section in very quick fashion and picks up the narrative as if that section had never happened. The viewer should feel for the characters it sees in The Pianist, and it does so through the presentation of reality. The reality of how bad the world has been, is and could be is more than enough to power The Pianist and to ensure The Pianist is a World War II film that everyone needs to see.





6 responses to “World War II Marathon: The Pianist (2002)

  1. I think “The Pianist” is the better film as well, in part because it defines itself to a very small, personal depiction of the holocaust and feels much more real because of it.

    Plus, I think Polanski is a much more skillful filmmaker who makes a lot more out of his material than Steven Spielberg does with Schindler’s List.

  2. I have not seen the movie in a few years, but it is indeed its inherent bleakness that I recall most. Gritty and bleak, those two words aptly describe Polanski’s film. Better than Schindler’s List? I don’t know about that though…

  3. Very, very good film that shows just how riveting Polanski can be. But also not forgetting about Adrien Brody and just how truly great his acting skills really are.

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  6. James – I’m on board with all of your points. 🙂

    Edgar – Well, I know Edgar, I know…

    Rok – Brody was great in this one, but I can’t say that I’ve seen him in anything else where he’s impressed me much.

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