Cast: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Emilia Fox, Michal Zebrowski
Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Adrien Brody), Best Director (Roman Polanski), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Pawel Edelman), Best Costume Design (Anna B. Sheppard), Best Film Editing (Herve de Luze)
SUMMARY: Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a renowned professional pianist who lives in Warsaw, Poland with his family, several of whom are also musicians. The family has been very successful, but because they are Jewish, when the Nazis take over Poland in 1939, they face persecution. The family quickly begins to run out of money, and sell their luxurious apartment and many of their belongings. In late 1940, the entire family and most of the rest of Warsaw’s Jews are forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. The ghetto is seriously overcrowded, and disease and starvation are rampant. The Szpilman family manage to survive, but are horrified by the events happening around them. The Nazi guards periodically enter the ghetto and remove inhabitants, either to be sent to concentration camps, or to be killed on the spot. Through the efforts of Wladyslaw in particular, all of the family members are able to avoid this particular fate (he procures work cards for each person, even a fake one for his elderly father). All of this changes in 1942, when the ghetto is emptied and the inhabitants are sent to an unknown destination (it turns out to be Treblinka). Initially, two members of the Szpilman family (Wladyslaw’s brother and a sister) are selected to remain behind in the ghetto, but because they did not want to leave their family, these two voluntarily join the others – a move Wladyslaw knows is suicidal. As the family walks to the train, a friend in the Jewish police yanks Wladyslaw out of the line and tells him to run. With nowhere else to go, Wladyslaw returns to the ghetto, and becomes a slave laborer working construction for the Nazis. After some time, he gets a rather cushy position measuring out supplies; the Nazi that is running the site also allows the men to have extra bread and potatoes. During this time, Wladyslaw joins a plot to smuggle weapons into the ghetto. However, Wladyslaw decides that he has to get out of the ghetto. He enlists the help of some non-Jewish friends, a professional singer and her actor husband, to do this. They put him in touch with an organization that hides Jews, and he is given a small apartment.
Wladyslaw has to move several times during the next year, but manages to escape detection. One of these stops is an apartment right across the street from the ghetto, which Wladyslaw can see from his window. In April of 1943, he watches as the ghetto inhabitants stage an uprising against the Nazis (the cause for which he helped smuggle weapons). This uprising lasts for several weeks, but is eventually violently crushed by the Germans. At his last stop, the man who was supposed to bring him food and check in on Wladyslaw instead keeps the money for himself, leaving Wladyslaw to die of cold and hunger. He develops jaundice, and is found in the nick of time by the singer friend, who gets him to a doctor. Wladyslaw is given one more hiding place, this one across from a German government building. In 1944, this building is attacked by the Polish resistance. The Germans bring in a tank to drive out the Polish fighters, and this tank shells the building Wladyslaw is living in. He escapes through a hole blown in the wall, and makes his way to an area of the city that has almost been leveled by bombing. He manages to find a fairly undamaged house, and inside, locates an unopened can of pickles. As he is trying to open this can one day, Wladyslaw is discovered by a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann), who has come to the house to play the undamaged piano there. When questioned, Wladyslaw reveals that he was a pianist, and when asked to demonstrate, sits down and plays an extensive (and difficult) piece from memory (even though he has not played for several years). The German officer then asks to see where Wladyslaw is hiding, and is taken to the attic. After seeing this, the man leaves. He returns the next day with a bundle of food – and a can opener – that he leaves with Wladyslaw. The house that Wladyslaw is hiding in is turned into a sort of temporary headquarters, with the German officer in charge of everything. He continues to sneak in food, without ever revealing Wladyslaw’s presence to the other men in the house. One day, he appears in the attic and tells Wladyslaw that because of the approaching Red Army, the Nazis are leaving the house. He then leaves his overcoat with Wladyslaw, and leaves. Not long after this, the Red Army captures the neighborhood, and Wladyslaw walks openly into the street. However, he is almost shot on sight, because he is wearing a Nazi greatcoat. Luckily, he manages to convince the other Poles in the street that he is a Pole who has been in hiding (when asked why he’s wearing the coat, he replies, “I’m cold.”). After the war ends in 1945, liberated concentration camp inmates are walking past a group of captured German officers when one of the Germans runs up to the fence. This German has heard one of the former inmates say that he was a musician, and wishes to know if he knows Wladyslaw Szpilman. When the man confirms this, the German states that he helped Szpilman while he was in hiding, and now needs help of his own. The musician returns to Warsaw, and eventually does find Szpilman, who has resumed his career as a pianist. The musician is able to take Wladyslaw back to the place where the Germans were held, but any trace of them is long gone. Szpilman went on to a very successful career, and, as noted in an epilogue, died in 2000. The German officer, whose name was Wilm Hosenfeld, died in a Soviet POW camp in 1952.
MY TAKE: If anybody could direct a haunting Holocaust film, it’s Roman Polanski, because he actually lived through it: in fact, Polanski had lived in the Krakow Ghetto, also in Poland, until he escaped after the death of his mother. The little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List is based on Polanski’s cousin (who survived, unlike the movie character). Although the bulk of the film (which is based on a true story) focuses on how Szpilman moves from hiding place to hiding place, frequently only one step ahead of the Nazis, the most heart-wrenching part of the movie for me are the scenes from the ghetto. I think these most accurately show the cold-blooded cruelty of the Nazis. For me, the worst of these was when the Nazis entered the apartment across the street from the Szpilman’s, found an elderly man in a wheelchair, and simply tipped him over the balcony of the upper-floor apartment. It’s done so unemotionally and simply that it’s chilling. As horrible as it is, this scene helps make the movie, because it shows what the Jews were up against. That, coupled with his extensive time in hiding, make you marvel at Szpilman’s will to survive, as well as his luck: if he didn’t have such well-connected friends, or hadn’t run into a strangely sympathetic German officer, things would have ended a lot differently. It is sad that Szpilman wasn’t able to help Hosenfeld (the officer), or even learn the man’s name during their acquaintance, since the man was certainly responsible for keeping Szpilman alive for the last few months of the war. This brings me to a curious moment in the film: the can of pickles. I call it curious because it’s both very sad and slightly humorous: Szpilman hasn’t had any significant food for some time, and is thrilled to find the pickles. When he can’t get it open, instead of leaving it, he takes it with him – everywhere. Like I said, it becomes almost funny, because he is forever lugging this can of pickles around. However, it stops short of being amusing, because you know why he won’t let go of the can – he doesn’t know when or where he will find more food. I assume that he did eventually get the can open, because in the first bundle of food that Hosenfeld brings, there’s also a can opener (and you don’t see Szpilman dragging the can around after that). Perhaps the real humor didn’t happen during the movie at all, but rather at the Oscar ceremony, where Adrien Brody famously planted one on presenter Halle Berry.
RATING: Incredible depiction of a horrible (though inspiring) story.