What strikes you first about The Pianist, aside from the fact that it is Roman Polanski’s most personal and powerful film in years, is its rigorous lack of sentimentality. Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Dresser) never resort to phony Life Is Beautiful uplift in telling the true story of young pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish Jew who survived the Nazi invasion of Warsaw (where much of this film was shot) by hiding out and living like an animal. If the film lacks the heroic heft of Schindler’s List, it is second to none in unflinching honesty.
In telling this harrowing tale, adapted from Szpilman’s 1946 memoir, Polanski draws on his own childhood in Poland (he escaped the Krakow ghetto, though his mother died in a concentration camp) and his soul-deep faith in the tender mercies of art. Szpilman is first seen playing Chopin for Polish radio when the Nazi bombs fall in 1939. Until the end of war, when a Nazi officer (the superb Thomas Kretschmann) asks him to play, Szpilman is mostly alone, observing the horror through windows, hearing music only in his head.
That we never get inside Szpilman’s head is the film’s nagging flaw. Brody (Summer of Sam) works miracles at showing bruises beyond words and tears. But the script, eager to avoid glib posturing, denies the character fullness. That note of detachment could cost The Pianist in the Oscar race, as could the statutory-rape charges against Polanski that prompted the now sixty-nine-year-old director to flee the U.S. three decades ago. Still, nothing can detract from the film as a portrait of hell so shattering it’s impossible to shake.