How it all goes down:
Based on the memoir of the real-life Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Pianist follows his struggles of living as a Jewish man, as he and his family are subjected to increasing anti-semitic discrimination with Nazi-occupied Poland. Beginning in 1939 and continuing to 1945, the film documents the horrific conditions that Jewish people lived under and what some, like Wladyslaw Spzilman, had to do to survive.
As you would expect any film about the Holocaust to, the Pianist is brutal, horrific, unrelenting and extremely powerful. Quite rightly, it doesn't shy away from the horrors that happened during the Holocaust. Instead, it explicitly and graphically portrays these horrors for the viewer. This is where the film rises to new heights. As a viewer myself, I have heard about the Holocaust and the awful conditions that Jewish people and others were subjected to, but to see it in front of me was something completely different. One of the most brutal moments of violence is when Nazis storm into a Jewish household where a family is eating dinner. They demand that all of the family stand up to salute Hitler, but one of the men is confined to a wheel-chair and thus unable to stand up. Without hesitation, the Nazis take the man to the window and throw him out of it. This was a powerful and visceral reminder of the merciless and sadistic nature of the Nazis. However, this act of violence was just one in a long line of many that all served well to keep me thoroughly engaged with the film.
Even though this film did well in depicting the brutal conditions that the Jewish people lived under, it did even better at depicting the panic and desperation that they felt. In one of the film's most powerful scenes, a starving man tries to steal, essentially a bowl of slop, out of the hands of a starving woman. In their struggle, the slop falls to the floor and the man immediately gets down on his hands and knees and gobbles up the slop directly from the cold, hard ground. This scene was uncomfortable to watch, but a brilliant depiction of the terrible conditions within the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Pianist also engages excellently with the theme of family. Wladyslaw comes from a large family all of which are vastly loyal and protective of each other. Another powerful scene comes when the Szpilmans are waiting to be transported to Treblinka, they spend the last of their money on a tiny bar of caramel that they share as a last meal. Fortunately, Wladyslaw is rescued at the last minute by a friend in the Jewish Ghetto Police, but his family are sent to Treblinka to never be seen again. This was a touching scene and one that demonstrates the importance of family.
Polanski's direction is magnificent. His depiction of the Holocaust is immediate, raw and doesn't let up for a minute. He kept me engaged throughout the whole film and it is to be strongly applauded that rather than holding the viewer's hand, he throws them straight into the deep end. Quite rightly, the Holocaust is depicted in all of its horror.
The acting and music were also superb. Adrien Brody who played Wladyslaw Szpilman quite deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack is largely comprised of piano pieces all of which fit the film beautifully. In places they are understated, in others they are powerful.
Originally, I was going to criticise this film for how it has a happy ending. After Szpilman escapes from the Warsaw Ghetto, he is hidden by the Polish resistance movement. However, during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Nazis discover Wladlyslaw's hideout and he is forced back into the ghetto where he hides from the Nazis in the attic of a ruined building. There he is discovered by a German soldier called Hosenfeld who rather than reports him keeps him hidden and brings him food. Initially, I would have preferred it if Szpilman had died at the end of the film, as I think it is only appropriate that a film concerning the tragic nature of the Holocaust should have a tragic ending. However, in hindsight, I realise that if the film had had a sad ending, this would have been catastrophic for two reasons. Firstly, it would have been gravely insulting to the memory of the real Szpilman who survived the Holocaust thanks to Hosenfeld, but, secondly, this would have undermined one of the greatest strengths of the film: how it demonstrates the complexity of human characters. In the Pianist, it is not always clear which character is on which side and at times morality becomes blurred. For example, the Polish resistance worker Szales who is supposed to be looking after Szpilman pockets all of the money that he is collecting to supposedly buy food for Szpilman. Through how Hosenfeld chooses to save Szpilman instead of shooting him on the spot portrays how it can be difficult to clearly distinguish between good and evil. Just like how Hitler scapegoated the entire Jewish population for Germany's suffering after World War 1, we scapegoat every single German soldier who fought under his command as a murderous, brutal thugs who killed without conscience. As this film quite rightly shows us, this was not always the case. Things are never that black and white.
What didn't work:
Whilst I can't criticise the film for its ending, one thing I didn't like about the film was how it constantly jumped from scene to scene. The film begins with Szpilman and his family in their home before they're moved to the Warsaw Ghetto, where Szpilman escapes and moves from home to home before finally being driven back to the ghetto. I didn't like how the location changed so often, as it really took me out of the film as a viewer. Just as I getting used to a new location and scene, it would change again. I found these constant scene changes distracting and detrimental to the film as a whole.
Another thing I didn't like was how the film barely touched on the Warsaw Uprisings. Even though, they were an important backdrop to the Pianist, we were shown the build-up and aftermath of the uprisings and not the uprisings themselves. I was vastly disappointed by this, as I felt that the Warsaw Uprising is too important of an event to be made light of.
What was ugly:
In its portrayl of the atrocities of the Holocaust, the Pianist includes numerous scenes of brutality. The Pianist demonstrated how the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were subject to routine violence including executions that happened every morning. This has to be one of the ugliest scenes in the film.
This film is powerfully done. It does not shy away from showing audiences the horrors of the Holocaust, rather forcing them to confront what happened. It has great music, acting and does well to portray the complexities of human characters. If only the Pianist had focused more on the Warsaw Uprising and hadn't jumped around so much, then it would have been superlative. A great film, but perhaps one too traumatic to watch again. Whatever way you look at it, Roman Polanski does brilliantly to really convey how for some victims of the Holocaust, it seemed like apocalypse now to them.