The Pianist Review

Whilst the rest of the world is worrying about the rise of National Socialism in Germany, Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is happily working as a seasoned performer for the Polish radio and considered to be one of Poland's greatest classical pianists. With the invasion of Poland, Warsaw's large Jewish population finds their rights steadily eroded, but for Wladek life is particularly hard: as an artist, he has never learnt a manual trade and when his entire family is moved to the pogrom, he finds that only the strong will survive and his tremendous musical talent will not save him...

Faithfully adapting Wladyslaw Szpilman's autobiography, Polanski has managed both to capture it admirably and mould his own experience of the Holocaust around it. His decision to make the film into one man's personal story of a collective event may not please the more curious viewers as many characters are discarded along the way and are not given a "suitable" closure, but that only serves to underline that a tragedy of such an amplitude can only be understood through each individual's eyes.
To try and capture the entire situation would either give a diluted or, even worse, stereotypical view, and Wladyslaw's story is just one amongst many that could have been told. It was probably chosen by Polanski due to the strong similarities with his own experience of the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. Although Polanski isn't credited with co-writing the script, a great deal of input came from him, including the addition of events from his own life such as his dramatic escape with another child from a deportation line-up. (Strangely enough the most successful takes on the Holocaust be it in the world of graphic novels with Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-winning Maus or Louis Malle's poignant Au Revoir Les Enfants, have also taken a personal experience of the events to tell the story.)
Technically, The Pianist manages to pack in high production values (elaborate sets, large scale sequences...) with relatively low-key cinematography which was deliberately toned down to allow the viewer to better enter into Wladek's world and thus prevent the film from turning into a big Hollywood experience. The more obsessive viewers (such as myself) may find the choice of making the Polish characters speak English (with British accents) slightly jarring - but realistically this is the only way the film could have been made given the scale of the production. Besides, the film manages to pass it off relatively well and you rapidly come to accept it, though you're never sure whether Yiddish or Polish is being used. Though Polanski has had some expensive disasters in his days (Pirates was once the most expensive French movie in history and also a terrible flop), he seems to have been able to control the setting to the best of his ability and come out on top.

The movers and shakers of the film industry seemed for once to agree: Cannes awarded the film the Palme D'Or and Hollywood awarding Polanski and Brody an oscar each, though Polanski, still being a fugitive in the US, couldn't be present to receive it. To a large extent, it’s easy to see why – Brody’s controlled and poised performance leads the film from start to finish and thanks to Polanski’s perfect control of the tone – never playing the script for tears or resorting to stereotypes to make a point – the film is well nigh perfect.

The DVD:

The image:The image is pretty clean as one would expect from such a recent release. The sole problems worth noting is the presence of aliasing on some suit patterns (though that may not occur on everyone's TV sets) - artifacting and digitalisation are minimal and probably not noticeable if you're not looking for it.

The sound:Sadly the UK release is missing the DTS track that the R1 release received. The DD 5.1 we have left is decent, however, the use of surround effects is rather parsimonious and is only highly noticeable in some key scenes. That is not necessarily a criticism as the film would have undoubtedly have lost much of it's raw impact if the sound technician decided to mix it like Armageddon. There are no noticeable problems with the track and it works perfectly with the film allowing the music to come to the fore when necessary.

The subtitles:It is worth noting that these are included for the Hard of Hearing and they are exceptionally well done with a clear colour-coding system and spatial positioning - it's nice to see so much care being put into a HOH subtitle track.

The menus:Very stylish and tasteful - excerpts from the opening of the film bring us into the Warsaw of the late 30s - naturally a solo piano plays in the background whilst you make your selections.

The extras:The extras are rather thin on the ground despite the double DVD set - the most substantial extra is a 40 minute documentary on the making of the film with Roman Polanski doing almost all the talking. He talks in depth about his interest in the story, how it relates to his own experience of the Holocaust in Krakow as well as the usual ins and outs of how the film was made with interventions from the lead actors, the set designer, the costume designer... there is also a great deal of archival material from the Warsaw Ghetto and behind the scenes footage interspersed throughout. As it doesn't really delve into the technicalities of film-making, the documentary is a great addition to the film which most viewers will find interesting.

Compared to the previous extra, the rest seem rather meagre in comparison: we get a gallery of film posters and stills (12 photos), the compulsory film trailer (for some reason, we get the French one in a non-anamorphic transfer) and some skeleton filmographies of Polanski, Brody and Kretschmann. There's also a trailer advertising the film's OST - whether that's an extra or an advert is anyone's guess!

Conclusions: The image and sound are as good as one can really hope and despite the missing DTS track, this is a very good release of the film with a good extra in the shape of the documentary.

Many thanks to Barry Woodcock and the rest of the team for numerous corrections and help in writing this review.

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