The Pianist DVD

I have known musicians, pianists in particular, who are so passionate about their music that they become one with their instrument. It’s a sort of musical nirvana that completely engulfs the player, creating a bubble that separates the musician from the distractions around them.


Jewish pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman is one such musician. While German bombs decimate the streets outside, Szpilman continues to play Chopin on a Warsaw radio station until he is literally blown off the air. It’s September 1939, and while his neighbors and friends abandon Warsaw, Szpilman and his family stay, hoping that a recent declaration of war against Germany by France and Britain will stop the Nazis from coming.

As history bears witness, that didn’t happen, and Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” examines Szpilman struggles to stay alive in the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi occupation. Polanski’s best film since “Chinatown,” “The Pianist” is also one of the best films of 2002, a heartbreaking, honest and emotionally devastating portrait of mans inhumanity to man at its worst.

Polanski, working from a stark, linear screenplay by Ronald Harwood, has created a haunting but ultimately hopeful tale of a man whose belief that his faith and love of music will protect him from the madness and chaos that surrounds him. Harwood, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright of “The Dresser,” dissects Szpilman’s 1946 memoir “Death of a City” and restructures it as a third person narrative that allows us to become observers rather than participants.

Adrien Brody, the chameleon-like actor whose unique look and demanding screen presence have earned him praise from directors like Spike Lee (Summer of Sam), Ken Loach (Bread and Roses) and Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), is riveting as Szpilman, a simple, close-knit family man who always tries to see the sun through the clouds. It’s his perennial hopeful perception that sets into motion a chain of events that will test his convictions.

While I would never say anything to disrespect the memories of those who lived through and died in the Holocaust, there have been so many films, books, and television shows about the subject that they begin to blur. Most deal with the unspeakable horrors of the concentration camps, and while no one should ever forget what happened in them, there are other stories to be told about the Nazi occupation of Poland.

“The Pianist” isn’t the feel good movie of the season, but it is one of the most important. The endeavor that Szpilman went through in order to stay alive in Warsaw are astonishing, from calling in a favor from a family friend that ends up saving his life but not that of his family, to hiding for months right under the enemies nose. The film lives and breathes through Brody’s performance, and he’s absolutely brilliant. Brody goes through a mental and physical transformation that leaves no doubt in our mind that this is a real person and not a portrayal.

Brody even studied classical piano so Polanski wouldn’t have to cheat the musical moments, and everything about Brody’s performance hits just the right note. After months of hiding, Szpilman is relocated to an apartment with a piano. Even though he’s told not to make a sound, Szpilman can’t help himself, and sits down and plays a melody. Brody is so proficient at letting us inside Szpilman that even though we know such an act could be deadly, we encourage him to feed his soul.

With the exception of a German officer who befriends Szpilman towards the end of the war, the enemy remains faceless. Harwood does little to credit them, perhaps as a reflection of how Szpilman saw the enemy. Before going into hiding, Szpilman worked on a restoration crew run by the Nazis to rebuild Warsaw, but was never allowed to look his enemy in the face. While hiding, he only saw them from his window, close enough to evoke fear, far enough away to create false hope.

By focusing on Szpilman, Polanski and Harwood are allowed to take shortcuts that get to the heart of the matter. Anyone with a sense of 20th century history knows what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto, so Polanski presents the misery and horror as matter of fact. Instead of glorifying the violence, it just happens. It’s as inhumane and cruel as the people inflicting it, and Polanski never lets us forget it.

Polanski has recreated the war town streets of Warsaw with chilling believability It’s sad to watch well-traveled and populated streets reduced to rubble. The cinematography, the score, the fluid editing all invite us into an experience you won’t soon forget.

DESSERT

The film is presented in it’s original 1.85:1 widescreen format, enhanced at 16:9 for widescreen televisions. Universal Home Video has wisely layered the film on one side of the DVD, pushing the extras to the flip side. This gives the film room to breathe, and the transfer is excellent. The images are rarely bright and vivid, but the solemn look of the film has been perfectly preserved in the transfer, allowing for dark, somber earth tones, impressive flesh tones, and ominous shadows. Depth of field and attention to detail, even in the darker scenes, is vivid. The occasional burst of colors are equally vivid, creating a startling contrast. The pristine print allows no room for digital compression artifacts.

A well mixed DTS 5.1 surround sound soundtrack puts you right in the middle of the film, with an impressive front sound stage that features a strong dialogue mix, expressive left-to-right stereo split, and the occasional surround effects, most noticeable during the war scenes. Rear speakers are used sparingly, usually for musical cues and the occasional ambient sound. Surround effects are also in short supply, but most of the action comes from the front, and it is superb. Basses are booming when needed, and high and middle ends are clean and crisp. No noticeable hiss or distortion. The musical score punches through the speakers with assurance, creating a startling contrast to the nightmarish images on the screen. Universal Home Video has also packed the DVD with a 5.1 Dolby Digital track in English and French, and a 2.0 track in Spanish. Something for everyone.

Flip the DVD over, and experiences the thorough and thoughtful 35-minute documentary “Story of Survival: The Making of the Pianist,” which includes interviews with Oscar-winning Best Actor Adrien Brody, Oscar-winning screenwriter Harwood, plus extensive recollections from Best Director winner Polanski, who manages to break the language barrier with his passionate memories that served as the inspiration for making the film. There is also newsreel footage of the war and of Szpilman. The documentary benefits from a fluid narrative, much better than cutting the various scenes up into mini-featurettes. The DVD also includes the original theatrical trailer, a musical promotional spot, and the usual cast and crew filmographies.

THE PIANIST

Universal Studios Home Video

Rated R

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