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(2002) (Adrien Brody, Ed Stoppard) (R)

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Drama: A Jewish pianist tries to survive the Nazi takeover and destruction of Warsaw throughout WWII.
It's Warsaw 1939 and Wladyslaw Szpilman (ADRIEN BRODY) is a concert pianist working in a recording studio. A nearby bombing puts a halt to that, resulting in Wladyslaw heading home. There, his Jewish parents (FRANK FINLAY & MAUREEN LIPMAN) and siblings, Henryk (ED STOPPARD), Regina (JULIA RAYNER) and Halina (JESSICA KATE MEYER), are trying to figure out what to take with them should the increasing Nazi presence in their city force them to flee.

Wladyslaw has no intention of leaving. After all, he loves his city and is fond of Dorota (EMILIA FOX), a Polish cellist. She's concerned, however, with the growing anti-Semitism that's on display. It's not long before the family is moved into a walled-in ghetto, however, and the family tries to adjust. Itzak Heller (ROY SMILES), a Jewish collaborator of the Nazis, wants Wladyslaw and Henryk to join his Jewish police force, but the brothers refuse the offer.

As they try to make enough money to support the family, conditions progressively worsen until everyone is eventually deported, save for Wladyslaw who's pulled aside by Itzak and thus spared. With help from Benek (ANDRZEJ BLUMENFELD), the owner of the restaurant where he formerly played piano, Wladyslaw gets work, but the conditions are tough and the German officers and guards are harsh.

Things continue to worse, resulting in Wladyslaw seeking out help from underground sympathizers who place him in various "safe houses" where he has nothing to do but watch and listen to the outside world. Following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, Wladyslaw finds himself on his own once again. With brief help from Dorota and others as well as German Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (THOMAS KRETSCHMANN), Wladyslaw tries to survive while awaiting the end of the war.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Everyone has his or her share of bad days. Then there's the fact that no one gets out of this world alive. Accordingly, I've always tried to live by the philosophy that no matter how bad you might have it, there's always someone who has or had it far worse.

The present example shows that being yelled at by the boss or getting a traffic ticket isn't as bad as losing a limb or having another country invade yours. The past one not only proves that people can survive and overcome traumatic events, but that they can also thrive afterwards.

Roman Polanski and Wladyslaw Szpilman are two examples of just that. Both witnessed and survived the horrors of WWII and anti-Semitism in Nazi controlled Poland and then went on to great success in their respective fields.

They now meet in a cinematic fashion in "The Pianist," Polanski's filmed retelling of Szpilman's 1946 memoir, "Death of a City" that chronicled his experiences and survival there. At first glance, the film looks like yet just another Holocaust related drama. It obviously is, of course, and comes pre-loaded with the expected emotional baggage, familiar scenes and harrowing and disturbing material.

Yet, Polanski ("The Ninth Gate," "Chinatown") and screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("Cry, the Beloved Country," "The Browning Version") have also adapted Szpilman's amazing tale as an individualistic piece that takes an unflinching and mostly unsentimental look at that tragic period in history. It also focuses on the theme of man's will and ability to survive and it's just as impressive in that mode as it is when dealing with the historical material.

Spanning six years from 1939 to 1945, the film follows the life of Szpilman beginning with the bombing of Warsaw through the construction and population of its walled ghetto, the inhabitants' deportation and uprising and the aftermath of all of that.

Much like Spielberg's "Schindler's List," the film is gripping, harrowing and uplifting, but focuses more on the one man rather than the people as a whole. More straightforward and less artsy than Spielberg's Oscar-winning, black and white effort, this one also contains amazing and shocking moments of kindness and hatred, as well as individual scenes and visuals that will long be etched onto viewers' minds.

After a string of artistic and/or commercial misfires, Polanski is back on top of his game with this effort. In addition, the work from his production crew -- production designer Allan Starski, cinematographer Pawel Edelman, composer Wojciech Kilar and costume designer Anna Sheppard and editor Hervé de Luze - is topnotch.

Thanks to their collective effort, the film's horrific world seems both real and nightmarish and should earn various accolades and award nominations. In short, the viewer essentially becomes a first-hand witness of the horrific events of WWII as they unfolded in this particular setting.

It's the performance by lead actor Adrien Brody ("Harrison's Flowers," "Liberty Heights"), though, that leaves the greatest impact and completely engages the viewer. Rarely can a performer say so much and let his eyes do the talking without uttering a word, but that's certainly the case here.

That's a good thing as well since Brody is rarely off camera and often times has no one else to play off (much like Tom Hanks in "Cast Away"). In what could be a career-defining role and which should certainly earn him various nominations and/or awards, Brody is nothing short of brilliant in the part and clearly humanizes the story.

Other performers such as Ed Stoppard ("The Little Vampire"), Thomas Kretschmann ("Blade II," "U-571"), Roy Smiles (making his feature film debut) and Emilia Fox ("Soulkeeper") come and go and thus don't get much of a chance to match his performance, but all are decent in their respective roles.

While some may complain that the film "cops out" near the end by concluding with a "happy" ending (or as happy as it can get, I suppose), one must remember that the real-life man did, in fact, survive the horrors seen here. Thankfully, Polanski doesn't go soft with such material. While it's hard to say how much artistic license has been taken with the truth (particularly in regard to the ending), for the most part the majority of the film works quite well.

Not necessarily an uplifting film, but rather an engrossing and engaging "you are there" look at the will to survive, the effort ranks up there with some of the best and most memorable pictures about the time, place and subject matter at hand. "The Pianist" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed December 9, 2002 / Posted January 3, 2003

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