The Pianist’ brings music to the ears

Ted Pigeon

“The Pianist” is the work of a filmmaker at the top of his form – it is raw and emotional but without a hint of melodrama. Instead of relying on cheap Hollywood effects, legendary director Roman Polanksi very simply tells a beautiful story of redemption in the midst of one of the most dehumanizing events in history.

The film opens in Warsaw in 1939, where famed Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman is on the air playing piano as the sound of the German weaponry sends vibrations through the building and the explosions of cannons shatter windows. He remains playing without any sign of reluctance, his fingers gracefully shifting up and down the keys of the piano. Due to the Nazi invasion, the Jews were quickly restricted from such things as sitting at public benches and dining at certain restaurants. Before long, they were forced to bear the star of David on their right arms and were relocated to ghettos.

Szpilman lives with his family and calmly watches them argue over what they should do. His brother is very vocal about his feelings, but Szpilman remains mostly quiet. Outside, German soldiers are relentless in their treatment of the Jews, bringing back memories of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

At this point, Polanski is plunging the audience into the atmosphere and giving us a sense of everyday life for Szpilman and his family. From a plot standpoint, not much happens. The absence of a musical score creates a more real environment for the filmmakers. Polanski wants to recreate this world in its rawest form and at the same time allow the audience into the perspective of his central character, as we, like him, simply observe the world we’ve been plunged into.

Eventually, Szpilman is cut off from his family when the Nazis send almost the entire Jewish community to labor camps. The remainder of the film tells his extraordinary story as he struggles to survive in desperate circumstances with almost no hope. He sees death at literally every turn, whether by close encounters with German soliders or by starvation. He receives help from a number of strangers, all of whom provide him shelter in his hiding from the Nazis. There are long stretches of the film in which we see Szpilman alone in the destroyed Polish cities searching for food and water, trying desperately to stay alive.

With the absence of any kind of artful filmmaking of other elements often employed in films, this film nevertheless builds to an unexpected emotional release. In the best scene in the film, a worn-down Szpilman surprisingly encounters a German officer. The officer discovers that Szpilman is a pianist and asks him to play. The depiction of the Nazi not as a faceless adversary but as a person fills the scene with a powerful human element. Seeing them both — a Nazi and a Jew — transform when Szpilman majestically plays, is something to behold. What transpires after this transient moment between the two is equally breathtaking.

This film is a long, arduous journey that is, at no point, pleasant or over-the-top. There are no speeches about the horrors of it all, no voiceover narrations by the central character, no sweeping musical interludes. Instead, Polanski is able to avoid the easy road and tells this very heartfelt story in the most mature manner.

The result is an unrelenting, sometimes horrific recreation of one of the most tragic events this world has seen. But through it all is a story of hope, passion and redemption.