Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Adrien Brody, Thomas Kreschmann, Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman.
A bleak city square is empty, bar hundreds of discarded suitcases. A family lie sprawled on the footpath, symmetrical in death. Two desperate figures brawl over a tin of soup, which in turn is spilled into the snow. A man who must remain silent on pain of death pretends to play a piano, his fingers suspended an inch above the keys.
It is these scenes of quiet desperation that make 'The Pianist' such a moving and important film. For Polanksi, a Polish Jew, the story of a musician's survival of the Warsaw Ghetto must have had immense personal resonance, but thanks to his masterful treatment, the resulting film can and should be watched by everyone.
The story is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist who survived the evacuation of the Ghetto and remained in hiding for years until finally discovered by the Red Army as they swept through Warsaw towards Berlin.
Adrien Brody performs sensitively and credibly in the title role, and is ably supported by British veterans Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman as his parents. But 'The Pianist' is hardly a character study. We learn little of the Szpilmans other than that they are a respectable Jewish family enduring the most horrifying events in the history of Europe. Equally, the German soldiers remain cyphers; sadistic, boorish, even drunk, but without any complexity or depth as characters.
The film is strong in its visual depictions of ghetto life, the well-choreographed street-fighting (often seen through a window or a keyhole from the hero's hiding place) and the ruined cityscape of Warsaw itself. It also handles music and sound superbly, from the Chopin that tinkles from the radio studio at the film's opening to the apocalyptic tank blast that causes temporary deafness in the hero (a particularly terrifying and technically well-realised scene).
At 149 minutes, 'The Pianist' might perhaps be over-long, but the sheer power of its sound and vision will stay with you for days to come.