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The title is an understatement, and so is the film. Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" tells the story of a Polish Jew, a classical musician, who survived the Holocaust through stoicism and good luck. This is not a thriller, and avoids any temptation to crank up suspense or sentiment; it is the pianist's witness to what he saw and what happened to him. That he survived was not a victory when all whom he loved died; Polanski, in talking about his own experiences, has said that the death of his mother in the gas chambers remains so hurtful that only his own death will bring closure.
The film is based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman , who was playing Chopin on a Warsaw radio station when the first German bombs fell. Szpilman's family was prosperous and seemingly secure, and his immediate reaction was, "I'm not going anywhere." We watch as the Nazi noose tightens. His family takes heart from reports that England and France have declared war; surely the Nazis will soon be defeated and life will return to normal.
It does not. The city's Jews are forced to give up their possessions and move to the Warsaw ghetto, and there is a somber shot of a brick wall being built to enclose it. A Jewish police force is formed to enforce Nazi regulations, and Szpilman is offered a place on it; he refuses, but a good friend, who joins, later saves his life by taking him off a train bound for the death camps. Then the movie tells the long and incredible story of how Szpilman survived the war by hiding in Warsaw, with help from the Polish resistance.
Szpilman is played in the film by Adrien Brody , who is more gaunt and resourceless than in Ken Loach's " Bread And Roses " (2000), where he played a cocky Los Angeles union organizer. We sense that his Szpilman is a man who came early and seriously to music, knows he is good, and has a certain aloofness to life around him. More than once we hear him reassuring others that everything will turn out all right; this faith is based not on information or even optimism, but essentially on his belief that, for anyone who plays the piano as well as he does, it must.
Polanski himself is a Holocaust survivor, saved at one point when his father pushed him through the barbed wire of a camp. He wandered Krakow and Warsaw, a frightened child, cared for by the kindness of strangers. His own survival (and that of his father) are in a sense as random as Szpilman's, which is perhaps why he was attracted to this story. Steven Spielberg tried to enlist him to direct " Schindler's List ," but he refused, perhaps because Schindler's story involved a man who deliberately set out to frustrate the Holocaust, while from personal experience Polanski knew that fate and chance played an inexplicable role in most survivals.
The film was shot in Poland (where he had not worked since his first feature film, "Knife in the Water," in 1962), and also in Prague and in a German studio. On giant sets he recreates a street overlooked by the apartment where Szpilman is hidden by sympathizers; from his high window the pianist can see the walls of the ghetto, and make inferences about the war, based on the comings and goings at the hospital across the street. Szpilman is safe enough here for a time, but hungry, lonely, sick and afraid, and then a bomb falls and he discovers with terror that the running water no longer works. By now it is near the end of the war and the city lies in ruins; he finds some rooms standing in the rubble, ironically containing a piano that he dare not play.
The closing scenes of the movie involve Szpilman's confrontation with a German captain named Wilm Hosenfeld ( Thomas Kretschmann ), who finds his hiding place by accident. I will not describe what happens, but will observe that Polanski's direction of this scene, his use of pause and nuance, is masterful.
Some reviews of "The Pianist" have found it too detached, lacking urgency. Perhaps that impassive quality reflects what Polanski wants to say. Almost all of the Jews involved in the Holocaust were killed, so all of the survivor stories misrepresent the actual event by supplying an atypical ending. Often their buried message is that by courage and daring, these heroes saved themselves. Well, yes, some did, but most did not and--here is the crucial point--most could not. In this respect Tim Blake Nelson's " The Grey Zone " (2001) is tougher and more honest, by showing Jews trapped within a Nazi system that removed the possibility of moral choice.
By showing Szpilman as a survivor but not a fighter or a hero--as a man who does all he can to save himself, but would have died without enormous good luck and the kindness of a few non-Jews--Polanski is reflecting, I believe, his own deepest feelings: that he survived, but need not have, and that his mother died and left a wound that had never healed.
After the war, we learn, Szpilman remained in Warsaw and worked all of his life as a pianist. His autobiography was published soon after the war, but was suppressed by Communist authorities because it did not hew to the party line (some Jews were flawed and a German was kind). Republished in the 1990s, it caught Polanski's attention and resulted in this film, which refuses to turn Szpilman's survival into a triumph and records it primarily as the story of a witness who was there, saw, and remembers.
Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.
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The Pianist (2003)
Rated R For Violence and Brief Strong Language
Frank Finlay as The Father
Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman
Thomas Kretschmann as Capt. Wilm Hosenfeld
Emilia Fox as Dorota
Maureen Lipman as The Mother
- Roman Polanski
- Ronald Harwood
Based On The Book by
- Wladyslaw Szpilman
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2002, History/Drama, 2h 28m
What to know
Well-acted and dramatically moving, The Pianist is Polanski's best work in years. Read critic reviews
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In this adaptation of the autobiography "The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945," Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jewish radio station pianist, sees Warsaw change gradually as World War II begins. Szpilman is forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, but is later separated from his family during Operation Reinhard. From this time until the concentration camp prisoners are released, Szpilman hides in various locations among the ruins of Warsaw.
Rating: R (Violence|Brief Strong Language)
Genre: History, Drama, War
Original Language: English
Director: Roman Polanski
Producer: Robert Benmussa , Roman Polanski , Alain Sarde
Writer: Wladyslaw Szpilman , Ronald Harwood
Release Date (Theaters): Dec 27, 2002 original
Release Date (Streaming): Apr 19, 2016
Box Office (Gross USA): $32.5M
Runtime: 2h 28m
Distributor: Focus Features
Production Co: Miramax
Sound Mix: Surround
Cast & Crew
Captain Wilm Hosenfeld
Jessica Kate Meyer
Hervé de Luze
Anna B. Sheppard
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Critic Reviews for The Pianist
Audience reviews for the pianist.
One of Polanski's best films to date, The Pianist is an adaptation of the autobiography from Szpilman who survived the Holocaust in Poland. The story is shockingly realistic, which makes it all the more disturbing. It is a beautiful story about the will to survive even under the most desperate times. Brody gave us one of his best performances. It's good but too disturbing for a second viewing.
A fantastic Holocaust film from one of the greatest directors of all time, Roman Polanski, The Pianist is masterfully made and accompanied by an astounding performance from Adrien Brody as a Polish Jew who is confined to the Warsaw ghetto during Nazi occupation of Poland. Well worth watching.
Undoubtedly a great movie, but somehow doesn't feel quite as reverent as other pieces--if you've ever read anything about Polanski's life, The Pianist feels autobiographical, focusing largely on one man's journey instead of the plight of a people. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, The Pianist doesn't reverberate quite as emotively as other films set during the Holocaust. Still, The Pianist is an excellent film. Adrien Brody is haunting and gives what I consider to be one of the best performances I have ever seen. Similarly, the look Polanski achieves with the natural lighting is incredible. Overall, a great film.
Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann give tremendously haunting performances in Roman Polanski's The Pianist. The film does not seek our tears or sympathies, but instead tells the story of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman just as it is, and that makes it all the more emotionally involving. It's length and use of minimalist music may prove too boring or non-dramatic for some, but the Chopin interspersed throughout gave it more than an actual score could. In conclusion, The Pianist features a haunting central performance by Adrien Brody, and despite it's length and a familiar shell story, this is told differently and is more emotionally involving than other films of this subject matter.
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Common sense media reviewers.
Powerful true story of a Jewish pianist has brutal violence.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
The brutality of the Nazi occupation and subsequen
Wladyslaw endures incredible suffering and degrada
Graphic violence portraying the onset of the Holoc
Uses of "f--k" and "s--t."
Alcohol drinking in restaurants, wine drinking at
Parents need to know that The Pianist is a 2002 Oscar-winning movie about a young Jewish musician living in Warsaw desperately trying to make sense of the Nazi invasion of his country and the subsequent degradations, the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the madness that led to the Holocaust. There is…
The brutality of the Nazi occupation and subsequent racism, degradation of European Jews, and the Holocaust that followed is shown in graphic detail, a necessary reminder that this must never happen again. In times when humanity as a whole is shown at its worst, there are individuals and groups who stand up to evil and fight it with every means at their disposal. Music, and art as a whole, has the capacity to transcend war and hatred.
Positive Role Models
Wladyslaw endures incredible suffering and degradation as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Warsaw but manages to retain his dignity and sanity to survive. He demonstrates perseverance and courage. The Polish Resistance to Nazi occupation is shown through the actions of the characters who do their best to protect Wladyslaw and hide him from the Nazis and through those who fought back and died in the cause of freedom and liberation.
Violence & Scariness
Graphic violence portraying the onset of the Holocaust. A family watches in horror as Nazis in the building across the street roll a man in a wheelchair onto a balcony and throw him off. A woman is shot in the forehead. Jews are shot in the head while lying down. An injured man lying on a road is run over by a tank. Wartime violence: battles with machine guns, explosions, bombed buildings.
Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.
Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Language in your kid's entertainment guide.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Alcohol drinking in restaurants, wine drinking at dinner; no one acts drunk.
Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Drinking, Drugs & Smoking in your kid's entertainment guide.
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Pianist is a 2002 Oscar-winning movie about a young Jewish musician living in Warsaw desperately trying to make sense of the Nazi invasion of his country and the subsequent degradations, the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the madness that led to the Holocaust. There is graphic violence, but unlike so many movies in which violence is shown simply to add surface-level excitement to an otherwise formulaic Hollywood blockbuster, the violence is intended to reveal a glimpse of the real-life horrors European Jews endured at the hands of the Nazis during World War II and to leave audiences with the conviction that atrocities and genocide such as this must never happen again. Nonetheless, the violence is graphic: Men and women are shot in the head for little to no reason, a man in a wheelchair is tossed off a balcony, a man lying injured in the road is run over by a tank. There is also the wartime violence of machine-gun battles, bombed-out cities, explosions, and casualties. Profanity includes "f--k" and "s--t." The movie should inspire thought and discussion on the extremes of evil and good in humankind, the individual acts of heroism undertaken by those whose names will never make the history books, and the transcendent and unifying nature of music and art. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails .
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- Parents say (11)
- Kids say (20)
Based on 11 parent reviews
May be one of the best movies I've ever seen. Please watch this with your (older) kids.
So good but a bit to mature for younger teens and kids, what's the story.
THE PIANIST is the emotionally devastating true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman ( Adrien Brody ), a Jewish pianist in Poland caught up in the horrors of World War II. The Nazis invade Poland, confine Jews to a ghetto, and eventually ship them off to concentration camps. There is heartbreaking and graphic violence. Yet, director Roman Polanski delivers this difficult message in a very thoughtful, skillful way. Just when the audience is on the verge of becoming numbed by the grim life in the ghetto, the pianist escapes for a day and walks through the bright flower stalls in the crowded market outside the ghetto. It reminds the viewer of how far the pianist has fallen from a "normal" life, but it gives the viewer the same brief respite that it gives the pianist. Just when the Nazi brutality against the Jews seems unbearable, a music-loving German soldier treats the pianist kindly while Jewish victims prey on each other.
Is It Any Good?
The most effective parts of the movie are the small, vivid, almost unbearably poignant human moments. In one, a family awaiting a transport train that will take them away to a concentration camp combines all their remaining money to buy a single caramel, which they carefully divide into four tiny portions. The Pianist is an intense movie that is best for high school kids and up.
Roman Polanski, himself a survivor of the Holocaust who lost many family members, powerfully conveys the epic journey of a man who is transformed by a series of events from an elegantly dressed, highly cultured musician to a scavenging, debased shell of a human being.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about why movies such as The Pianist , which is based on a true story, are so important. Are there any current events you can think of that are similar to the plight of Jews in World War II?
In so many movies, violence serves no purpose but to provide a burst of excitement, to create action, to keep the audience entertained. How is this movie different? What do you think is the purpose of showing graphic violence in this movie?
While most people are familiar with what transpired during the Holocaust, what specifics did you learn that added to your understanding of World War II, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the brutal and unspeakable genocide? As the true story of a Jewish musician who lived through such a terrible time, how did this movie personalize these events?
How does Wladyslaw demonstrate perseverance and courage in The Pianist ? Why are these important character strengths ?
- In theaters : December 27, 2002
- On DVD or streaming : May 27, 2003
- Cast : Adrien Brody , Emilia Fox , Thomas Kretschmann
- Director : Roman Polanski
- Studio : Focus Features
- Genre : Drama
- Topics : Great Boy Role Models , History
- Character Strengths : Courage , Perseverance
- Run time : 150 minutes
- MPAA rating : R
- MPAA explanation : violence and mature, upsetting themes
- Last updated : April 8, 2023
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