Studio Canal/Universal .
R4 . COLOR . 143 mins .
MA15+ . PAL
Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) at the piano.
The evil and tragedy of Nazi Germany’s persecution and extermination of European Jews before and during World War II has been the subject of many a feature film and TV series, the most renowned of them to date perhaps being Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. But this is a story which will never lose its power and impact regardless of how many times it is told from different perspectives. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist takes audiences back once again to those dreadful events, but this time the story is told through the eyes of a man who never saw the inside of a concentration camp, but instead had to survive on his wits in the living hell created by the Nazis in his native Warsaw.
Many films on this subject are based on real-life accounts and experiences, but The Pianist takes this contact with real events a step further. Based on a memoir by Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, the events depicted here actually happened - but they’re also seen through the eyes of Polanski, whose childhood was marked by his own tragedy at the hands of the Nazis in Poland.
The tragedy hits home.
As the film opens, we meet Wladyslaw Szpilman, a successful pianist who regularly appears on Polish radio and is considered by many to be the finest musician around. But life in Warsaw is anything but normal; already bombs have started falling on the city, and the Nazis rule their new conquest with an openly hostile attitude towards the hundreds of thousands of Jews who live there. Draconian anti-Semitic laws are introduced in quick succession, the Jews demoted to the status of second-class citizens, forced to wear identifying armbands and banned from many shops and restaurants where they used to be welcome, barred from possessing any more than a token amount of money, and openly persecuted in the streets by sadistic soldiers. Soon things get much worse; a giant walled ghetto is created and every single Jew in the city is effectively imprisoned there, living in abject poverty, stepping over dead bodies in the street and suffering terribly at the hands of both the Nazi soldiers and some of their fellow Jews, who’ve taken on the role of policing the ghetto for the Nazis in the hope they’ll be spared. Eventually it becomes clear what the Nazis intend to do; they systematically empty out the ghetto, sending hundreds of thousands to death camps while keeping the younger and fitter around to do labour. Szpilman’s family are amongst those taken, and he is spared only by a last-minute favour. From this point on, Szpilman is forced to fend for himself; he escapes the ghetto and hides out with the help of friends in the Polish Resistance, but with even that movement ultimately doomed to failure, his eventual survival is anything but certain.
Fire in the sky.
Told by Polanski in an unfussy, straightforward style - very much unlike his more recent movies The Ninth Gate and Bitter Moon - The Pianist is a gripping and immensely moving story that pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the sheer abject evil of the chain of events which unfolds. Shooting on location in Warsaw - no small achievement, as that city was almost totally wiped out by the Nazis before the Resistance was put down - Polanski abandons his usual flamboyance here, instead allowing events as well as Wladyslaw Szpilman’s personal struggle to supply the emotional impact. As Szpilman, Adrien Brody is remarkable; he threw himself into the role physically and mentally, and the results speak for themselves via his utterly convincing performance.
Lengthy but superbly written and acted - and totally gripping from start to finish - the film unquestionably deserved its Golden Palm at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and the myriad other awards bestowed upon Polanski (including Best Director at the Oscars) and the cast and crew. While often bleak and disturbing (there’s no other way to tell this story), there’s an undercurrent of hope throughout; ultimately it’s a remarkable, unpretentious story about the sheer strength of the human spirit against incomprehensible odds. That it all really happened only serves to heighten the film’s impact.
Many critics have suggested that The Pianist is the sign of a return to form for Polanski; whether you agree depends on whether you think he was in any kind of artistic decline in the first place (we’d suggest not) and whether this decidedly un-Polanski-like film is truly representative of his wider body of work. But it’s encouraging to see that, when necessary, the man can step out of the chair marked “auteur” and come up with a movie that tells such a personal, difficult story so openly and honestly.
The Nazis fight back against the rebellion.
Transferred to DVD at its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio (and 16:9 enhanced), The Pianist looks utterly stunning from start to finish. What’s on offer here is a truly superlative video transfer that’s almost completely flawless - in fact, the only complaint we have (and it’s a very minor one) is the occasional visibility of a fine “grain” over some scenes, grain which looks to have come from the telecine process rather than the film stock itself. This happens very rarely though, and the transfer is so good it really doesn’t matter much - indeed, the only reason we’re mentioning it at all is because there’s nothing else here to complain about. No digital edge enhancement has been applied, yet the image is crystal-clear and often jaw-droppingly lifelike, and Polanski’s intelligent use of colour (or the absence of it) is accurately reproduced, Pawel Edelman’s superb cinematography displayed to full effect throughout.
With the movie on its own disc and encoded at a very high bitrate, there aren’t any compression problems. The layer change is perfectly placed so that few, if any, will notice it’s there.
The colour-coded, strategically-placed subtitles for the hearing impaired are worth a mention, by the way. All subtitles should be handled as intelligently as the ones of this disc. (English-language subtitles are also provided in plain white by default to translate short passages of the film that are spoken in German).
Help from the Underground.
Flawless video needs flawless audio as a companion, and that’s exactly what we get here. The theatrical Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is the only audio supplied (the DTS track that was on the US disc is nowhere to be found here, despite there being ample disc space for it) and it’s absolutely perfect. This is a very natural, almost “old-fashioned” surround mix, with razor-sharp dialogue anchored in the centre channel, music and effects spread across the front and subtle atmospherics in the surrounds. There aren’t many audio fireworks, nor are any needed. Fidelity is excellent across the board.
The spoils of war.
Despite being a dual-disc set, there are surprisingly few extras supplied with this release. The US disc provided the extras on the flip-side of a DVD-14 disc, but here we get them on a separate platter, presumably for practical reasons. The content is the same worldwide.
Documentary: A Story of Survival: This is the main extra, and a good one it is too. A 40-minute documentary about the making of the film, it offers extensive behind the scenes footage, interviews and historical film, and is most certainly not one of those awful EPK-style featurettes. Very much worth the investment of time to watch, this is the kind of making-of doco that every DVD producer should be aspiring to.
Photo Gallery: A handful of production stills.
International Posters: Another still gallery, this one containing three (yep, only three) international release posters for the film.
Trailer: The French theatrical trailer (these discs were authored in France by Studio Canal, and bear no Universal logos whatsoever).
Cast & Crew Filmographies: Not as extensive as we’d have liked, in fact not extensive at all. Here you’ll find filmographies only for Polanski, Brody and co-star Thomas Kretschmann. With so many little known performers in key roles in this film, it would have been wonderful to see filmographies for a larger cross-section of the cast. Ah well, that’s what the IMDB is for, we guess.
Original Soundtrack: A short audio excerpt from the soundtrack album, played over a still-frame screen showing its cover and credits. If you select the Sony Classical icon, you get a 30-second US TV commercial for the album, with the voice-over man curiously mispronouncing the title as “The Pee-annist”.
A remarkable story that manages to be both emotionally devastating and guardedly uplifting, The Pianist is a superb film, insightfully written and directed with unusual sensitivity. Fully deserving of the praise that’s been lavished on it, the film scores a stunning transfer on DVD, and while the extras are a bit lightweight, the included documentary is very satisfying.