#43: The Pianist (2002)

When and how did I watch this?

March 1st, 2017, on FandangoNOW.

Had I seen this film already?


What did I know about the movie before watching it?

I’d seen it a couple of times, but it only took one viewing to have its effect upon me as one of the most harrowing films I’d ever experienced. This all-too-real narrative about a nearly accidental Holocaust survivor has several challenging scenes, most violent or humiliating in nature, and a few of them made a permanent impression on me. It’s a sobering reminder of a period in history we hope never to repeat.

What do I know about it now?

This movie as a work of cinema is a masterpiece. Rather than using dramatic angles and slow pans, the film employs a “seeing-eye” perspective for much of it, with the exception of some wider shots to illustrate the magnitude of the situation (the growing crowd of Jews awaiting a train, the featured image here of the vast destruction in Warsaw). The camera is unsteady, but not sickeningly so — only as much as needed to emulate a realistic movement of the eyes — which provides us with haunting images of the fate of the Jewish people often shown through the lens of Wladek Szpilman (Brody).  When we do see Szpilman, it is usually a reaction to a situation, or a larger picture of his environment.  Even the breathtaking piano scene is done in close perspective, showing an exhausted Wladek laboring over the keys and cutting to a frantic set of hands pounding away. Silence is a significant tool in the film; we’re not cued of danger by rising ominous music, but a deadly lack of it, often broken up with German commands, gunfire, or screaming.  The symbolism is profound — Szpilman’s final radio performance before being forced into the ghetto is interrupted by a bomb hitting the radio station. He — and the Polish Jews — are silenced and shut down until the war concludes.

What are some themes in the film?

WWII/Holocaust, Warsaw uprising, Jewish culture and persecution, value of life

Did this affect me personally?

There are very few portions of this film that are not unsettling. The Jews are humiliated, starved and killed; uprisings are quashed, entire cities are demolished, and people are shot arbitrarily and often. While the destruction is vast, the deaths are still very personal and disturbing.  A child is killed while attempting to escape under a wall, a family in the ghetto is wiped out for sport, Jewish co-workers are executed, a group of Poles are taken out by firing squad, and we wonder if Szpilman is next as he slowly starves and weakens. A sliver of hope is provided us in the end, which I suppose I can cling to.

Why is this ranked #43?

The Pianist has a dramatic effect upon the viewer.  WWII is typically analyzed using increments of thousands and millions; this film chooses a closer, personal perspective, which forces the viewer to truly reckon with what happened.  I haven’t seen Schindler’s List yet, but I would guess this film has a similarly sobering influence.

Did my wife watch/like it?

She intentionally avoided watching this film.

Would I watch it again?

I don’t particularly enjoy watching countless innocent people die.  Nonetheless, an occasional viewing of this film is probably necessary to put me in my place, as a reminder that we really don’t have it as bad as we think.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

It might be more important to watch now than ever before.  People live in social media bubbles, believing this world and their circumstances to be incomparably bad.  The Pianist should set these people straight.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

Yes indeed.  The scope of this film cannot be adequately described in a brief blog.  One could say it attempts to tackle too much, but we remember in the end that this is based on a personal memoir; these events actually happened around the central character, and he is a mere shard of glass in the huge interstate pileup of gnarled metal that was the Second Great War. We’re lucky to be alive now. If a film is supposed to make you remember the value of life, this film does it in an inverted but surprising lucid manner.

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