Mathilda, a 12-year-old girl, is reluctantly taken in by Léon, a professional assassin, after her family is murdered. Léon and Mathilda form an unusual relationship, as she becomes his protégée and learns the assassin's trade.
A brilliant pianist, a Polish Jew, witnesses the restrictions Nazis place on Jews in the Polish capital, from restricted access to the building of the Warsaw ghetto. As his family is rounded up to be shipped off to the Nazi labor camps, he escapes deportation and eludes capture by living in the ruins of Warsaw. Written by
The Pianist is an account of the true life experience of a Polish pianist during WW2, in the context of the deportation of the Jewish community to the Ghetto of Warsaw, a setting virtually absent from all films inspired on WW2.
Polanski (himself a child survivor of the Krakow and Warsaw ghettos) could have described in more detail the legendary, desperate fighting of the Jewish resistance in the ghetto of Warsaw, or the horrific mass extermination in concentration camps. Instead, the film gains in intensity by displaying the war from the pianist's own point of view (through windows, half-opened doors, holes in the walls - with big emphasis on the use of "point of view shooting" by the cameraman). One cannot help feeling disturbed by the most enthralling scenes of the film, as the isolated pianist tries to ensure his survival in the ghetto and ruins of Warsaw, hiding and fleeing, moving from one bombed house to the next, gradually becoming a shadow of his former self, hungry and afraid (merit largely attributed to the extraordinary performance by Adrien Brody, who visibly loses half of his weight throughout the film).
Does the pianist raise any sympathy from the audience? Not immediately, in my view. The pianist is more than often a drifting character, almost a witness of other people's and his own horrors. He seems to float and drift along the film like a lost feather, with people quickly appearing and disappearing from his life, some helping generously, others taking advantage of his quiet despair, always maintaining an almost blank, dispassionate demeanour. One may even wonder why we should care in the least about this character. But we do care. That is, I believe, the secret to this film's poetry.
In one of the strongest scenes, towards the end, a German officer forces the pianist to play for his life, in an episode that suddenly brings a much lighter, beautifully poetic shade to the film (this German officer will be probably compared to Schindler, although his philanthropy does not quite share the same basis).
This is also a wonderful tribute to Polish artists, through Chopin's music, with the concert at the very end of the film and the opening performance by the pianist at the local radio station (with the sound of bomb explosions in the background) forming an harmonious link between the beginning and end of the film (following Polanski's usual story-frame).
Overall, The Pianist is one of the most detailed and shocking accounts of the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis, with the atmosphere in Warsaw well captured and believable. Quite possibly, The Pianist will remain in the history of film-making as the most touching and realistic portraits of the holocaust ever made.
Polanski's film deserves a strong presence in the 2003 Oscar nominations, including a nomination for Adrien Brody's amazing performance, Polanski's sublime direction, best adapted screenplay and, obviously, best picture. This could be, at last, Polanski's long awaited, triumphal comeback to the high and mighty Hollywood.
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