2002 / Best Actor / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #418: The Pianist (2002)

As we’ve seen, the Academy loves a film based on an inspirational true story and the next few posts look at four such films that have got plenty of attention from Oscar and have netted their lead the Best Actor award in their respective years.

First up we have The Pianist; a film based on the memoirs of Polish composer and pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. The film is a blow-by-blow account of what happened to the Jewish Szpilman during the Second World War as he attempted to survive as Warsaw crumbled around him. The interesting thing about Szpilman is he is never presented as any type of hero but instead as somebody who is simply trying to survive the extraordinary circumstances he’s found himself in. Although early on he does his best to try and save his family, once he’s separated from them he’s essentially concerned about himself. The other interesting thing about the character is that his survival often comes from the help of non-Jews including a friendly couple and a man who married the woman who Szpilman once loved. In the film’s latter scenes, Szpilman’s survival is aided by a German officer whose sole reason for helping him is to hear his music. Indeed, music is one of The Pianist’s main attributes and we can see Szpilman’s pain as he’s forced to keep quite while in a room with a piano. Although it’s a film set during wartime, I don’t think The Pianist can really be described as a war film and instead it sees the devastation of Poland from Szpilman’s eyes. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood cleverly punctuates scenes of actions with quieter moments that simply focus on Szpilman’s deterioration. We follow him as he tries to get over his jaundice and his struggles to find food and water in the film’s final scenes. The Pianist’s main triumph is in presenting a sympathetic character who is necessarily a heroic man but is someone who’s pain the audience can identify with.

It’s no surprise that Adrien Brody won the Best Actor prize for his performance as Szpilman as he completely commands the screen throughout. Brody has the mannerisms of a silent film star which helps in the latter half of the film where there is very little dialogue. Brody helps the audience understand Szpilman’s feelings as he slumps about the deserted streets of Warsaw clutching a jar of pickles in his hands. I felt Brody was absolutely captivating at playing both the charming musician in the film’s early moments and the shell of a man in the film’s latter scenes. Brody was aided by director Roman Polanski who made the town of Warsaw as big a character as Szpilman. I found some of The Pianist’s images truly shocking as Szpilman was horrified by the dead bodies strewn across the streets and later surveyed the hollowed out buildings which were once occupied by happy families. In my opinion Pawel Edelman deserved an Oscar for his superb cinematography which at times made The Pianist feel like a documentary. Thankfully Polanski was awarded with a Best Director honour for helming a truly memorable piece of cinema which has as much to say about the holocaust as Schindler’s List. If there’s one criticism I have of The Pianist it’s that I didn’t feel as strong an emotional connection with Szpilman as I possibly could have done. Whilst I admired the film, I was never completely drawn in to what was happening on the screen and instead I felt more like a bystander. Maybe this is the reason that The Pianist didn’t win the Best Picture award however I do feel it deserved it over the film that eventually scooped the award.


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