Roman Polanski himself experienced the Holocaust. His parents were sent to two different concentration camps: his father to Mauthausen-Gusen in Austria, where he survived the war, and his mother to Auschwitz where she was murdered.
The film is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman. The director Roman Polanski tried to make the film as faithful of an adaptation as possible, with additional inspiration coming from events that happened to him while he was a boy during the war.
The music played for the German officer in the film was actually an edit of Frédéric Chopin's Ballade No.1 in G Minor, (Op. 23, No. 1). In real life, Wladyslaw Szpilman played Chopin's Nocturne No.1 in C# Minor.
Adrien Brody lost 14 kg (31 lb) for the role of Wladyslaw Szpilman by eating a daily diet of two boiled eggs and green tea for breakfast, a little chicken for lunch, and a small piece of fish or chicken with steamed vegetables for dinner over a six week period. Initially his weight was 73 kg (161 lb).
The scene in which Wladyslaw Szpilman is saved from going to the concentration camps and is told "Don't run!" is inspired by a similar event in director Roman Polanski's life. Originally, Szpilman was told "Run!", which he did, but Polanski deliberately changed that element to reflect his own experience.
Director Roman Polanski considers this his best film. At the end of the documentary Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir (2011), interviewer Andrew Braunsberg asks him which of his own films he believes to be absolutely perfect, and wouldn't change a frame if he could. To this, Polanski replies: "If any film cannisters were to be placed on my grave, I'd like them to be The Pianist's".
The character played by Thomas Kretschmann was Captain Wilhelm Hosenfeld who, along with Oskar Schindler, shares the rare distinction of receiving the Righteous Among the Nations medal from the Jewish population. The real Hosenfeld died in Soviet captivity in 1952, possibly as a result of torture by the Russian authorities who held him responsible for war crimes. The real Szpilman didn't learn his real name - and fate - until 1951 when he did his best to save him, only to no avail.
Adrien Brody and Marion Cotillard are the only actors to win both a César and an Oscar for the same performance. Brody won both awards in 2003 for 'The Pianist' and Cotillard won in 2008 for La Vie en Rose (2007). Brody is also the only american actor to win a César.
Wladyslaw Szpilman's autobiographical account of his life in the Warsaw Ghetto during the war under the Nazi regime was published shortly after the war ended. However, the Communist government that took over in Poland refused to have it published for many years as it didn't fully comport with their "officially documented" version of events.
Both Roman Polanski and Ronald Harwood sat through hours and hours of authentic footage shot by the Germans during the war and were both struck at how orchestrated the footage was, deliberately engineered to produce the most striking effect.
Director Roman Polanski could not attend the Academy Award ceremony in Los Angeles where he won the Oscar for Best Director, due to an outstanding arrest warrant for a sexual abuse case. The award was accepted on his behalf by Harrison Ford, who presented it to Polanski five months later at the Deauville Film Festival.
Adrien Brody was convinced he didn't have a shot at winning the Best Actor Oscar and told fellow nominee Michael Caine that he hadn't thought of anything to say because he was sure he wasn't going to make it up to the podium.
Adrien Brody and Marcia Gay Harden are the only actors to win an Oscar without being awarded for the same performance in any of its predecessor awards (Critics Choice Awards, Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA). Harden was not even nominated for those awards for her performance in Pollock (2000).
Ronald Harwood was assigned the role of writing the screenplay, largely on the strength of his play "Taking Sides". Roman Polanski saw the play when it was produced in Paris in 2000. As the play is about music and Nazis, he figured Harwood would be a great fit for the project.
The two similarly titled films, The Piano (1993) and The Pianist (2002), made and released around a decade apart, both won the same number of Academy Awards, that being three. All the Oscar winners for The Piano (1993) were women whilst all the Oscar winners for The Pianist (2002) were men.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
A nuance for those who don't speak German: In general, the German officers use the informal version of "you" ("du," etc.) when talking to the Jews, which reflects their views (you wouldn't talk to adult strangers that way); however, Hosenfeld (the officer who discovers Wladyslaw Szpilman in hiding) always uses the proper formal form ("Sie," etc.) because of the way he personally feels.
Wilhelm "Wilm" Hosenfeld, the kindhearted German officer who was jailed by the Russians on trumped up charges and died in prison, was awarded Righteous Among The Nations status by the State of Israel. for his sheltering of Jews who otherwise would have been sent to the death camps.
Almost the entire movie is shot from Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody)'s perspective. The few exceptions are the black-and-white opening scenes, as well as the scene where Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) is found imprisoned in a Soviet camp.