THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The first time we see Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) in The Pianist, he is brilliantly playing his instrument on a radio broadcast. Meanwhile, World War II rages outside. An explosion blasts out all the windows in the studio, but Szpilman doesn't quit playing. He wants to continue despite the chaos. He is not just an accomplished musician; he is a passionate musician.

This is the first of many harrowing moments the character faces during the course of Roman Polanski's latest film, which benefits from a stunning authenticity, courtesy of the director's childhood memories of living through the time. Szpilman - a Polish Jew - lives a pretty happy life with his family. There are rumors that the Nazis are going to make all the Jews live in ghettos, but Szpilman vows he won't go. Of course, the incessant brutality of the Nazis makes such a declaration impossible. Szpilman tries to hide, but he can't. The Jews are, of course, moved into the ghettos - stuck behind walls that separate them both physically and emotionally from the rest of the world. Eventually, Szpilman is taken from his family as well.

During the course of The Pianist, we see this character engage in a daily struggle for his life. Forced to haul bricks as a job, he finds himself unable to perform such physical work (he is - we are reminded - a performer, not a laborer). One of the Nazis beats him within an inch of his life, but spares him from death. Later, an old friend gets him a work permit and a more suitable job. Later still, Szpilman decides to escape altogether, going underground to hide. A series of acquaintances help him hide in empty apartments where he cannot leave for fear of being discovered. (One of these places has a piano, but all Szpilman can do is noiselessly run his fingers just above the keys.) As soon as the Nazis find him, he has to go on the run again. The end of the movie is the most harrowing part as a disheveled, dispirited Szpilman hides in bombed-out buildings, eventually encountering a Nazi (Thomas Kretschmann) with whom he strikes up an unexpected relationship.

The amazing thing about this story is that it's true. Szpilman is a real person - a virtuoso pianist who survived a series of atrocities. His experiences are inspirational because, as we see in the film, he never gave up. By the time the movie was over, I was stunned by all the character had gone through. It's amazing to think that in the middle of such relentless evil and malice, a person could continue grasping to hope - hope that he could survive, hope that his people would one day be free again.

Polanski shoots the film in a verite style, depicting Nazi Germany but forcing you to experience it as well. He doesn't shy away from showing the unspeakable things that occurred. One scene, which disturbed me greatly, shows Nazis breaking into the apartment of a Jewish family. They demand everyone stand up. An elderly man in a wheelchair is physically unable to stand, so they pick him up and toss him off a third floor balcony. There are lots of moments in The Pianist that are hard to watch, but they serve two purposes: to make you understand once more how horrific the Holocaust was, and to make you appreciate Szpilman's undying spirit.

Adrien Brody is very good in the role. The actor's natural sad-sack features give him a weary look that perfectly expresses Szpilman's inner turmoil. If there is a problem in the film, it is that we know little about Szpilman. This is no fault of Brody's; it's simply the fact that the script focuses more on the journey rather than the man. In reflection, I could tell you a lot about what happened to Wladyslaw Szpilman, but I couldn't tell you much about the man himself. I wish the film had made him a more essential character in his own story. Many scenes consist of the character simply observing, never quite letting us know exactly what he thinks. We can certainly surmise that he is appalled and scared, but it would have been nice to feel like we knew him more.

That said, The Pianist is an otherwise exemplary movie. Polanski has done a masterful job capturing the horror of the Holocaust and the personal loss that so many experienced. Like another Holocaust film - Schindler's List - this one also finds a ray of light in the middle of a dark cloud. The story ends with Szpilman alive and well and playing to a sold out crowd. If this film doesn't inspire you, nothing will

( 1/2 out of four)

The Pianist is rated R for violence and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 28 minutes.

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