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Universal Studios Home Video presents
The Pianist (2002)

"Food is more important than time."
- Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), surrendering his wristwatch, for a meal

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: August 28, 2003

Stars: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann
Other Stars: Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Julia Rayner, Jessica Kate Meyer
Director: Roman Polanski

Manufacturer: Deluxe Digital Studios
MPAA Rating: R for violence and brief strong language
Run Time: 02h:29m:02s
Release Date: May 27, 2003
UPC: 025192276620
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The noise of Oscar time can distract us both from the quality of work for which those lucky few are honored just to be nominated, or even shut us out from the subject matter of a film, as the cacophony of the horserace drowns out everything else. (Will Catherine Zeta-Jones beat out Meryl Streep? Can Jack Nicholson win a fourth? Tune in to our endless telecast, and find out! Oh, and who are you wearing?) Similarly, the confusion of the artist with the art is a perpetual one—the odd hush over the crowd when Roman Polanski won the Best Director Oscar for this film struck me as more uncomfortable curiosity about the Academy's choice of a man on the run from the law in this country from a rape conviction than a respectful appreciation of his professional achievement.

And this certainly isn't the place to render any sort of judgment about Polanski the man; as a filmmaker, however, he has reached some extraordinary heights, first in his native Poland (e.g. Knife in the Water), then in Hollywood (Rosemary's Baby and especially Chinatown), and in the last decades in his European exile. The Pianist is an extraordinarily worthy achievement, both as a capstone to Polanski's illustrious career, and as a deeply moving and unflinching true story from perhaps the most horrific time of the twentieth century.

The title character is Wladyslaw Szpilman, a musician of great renown in 1930s Warsaw; he and his family live a life of bourgeois comfort and culture, and then the Nazis came. The Third Reich rolled through Poland and set about the business of the systematic deprivation, torture, and ultimately extermination of all of Poland's Jews, among them the Szpilmans—we witness the steep and steady decline, the brutality and inhumanity of the Germans against these innocents. One of the things that The Pianist does so well is rendering the petty cruelties and casual offensiveness of the rank and file German soldiers. They're the worst schoolyard bullies, drunk with power and armed, allowing the ugliest, darkest portions of the human heart to run riot.

It's hard not to compare this film to others that cover some of the same historical ground, and Polanski's movie acquits itself as well as any of them. There are obvious affinities between this and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, another story of a Jewish family rent apart by the Second World War; perhaps more obvious comparisons can be made between The Pianist and Schindler's List. One of the things that's so visually arresting about Polanski's movie is seeing all of the horrors in color; the historical footage is almost entirely in black and white, and Spielberg set out deliberately to evoke and play upon our experiences of those. Schindler's List may be more successful in examining the psychology of the Nazis—there's no equivalent in Polanski's film of Amon Goeth, the monster portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, and the insights we're given into his mind make his crimes and those of his comrades all the more despicable and unthinkable. But perhaps more important: Polanski's movie redresses one of the principal wrongs of Spielberg's movie, I think. In Schindler's List, the Jews are largely passive, and need a Gentile to mobilize them, to protect them, to save them; they're treated in the same docile victimized way as the generations of wronged blacks are in Mississippi Burning. In The Pianist, the Jewish community generally, and Szpilman in particular, are not only decent and wronged, but they are also cagey, resilient, fiery, and resourceful. (Not that I mean to speak ill of Schindler's List; the differences may be entirely accountable to telling a story with a Jewish hero, instead of a Gentile one.)

Adrien Brody as Szpilman has a stillness and a dignity and a sadness that carries him and us through the picture; this could have been an emoting mess of a performance, but the actor has calibrated things exactly right, and communicates a tremendous amount to us, especially in the many scenes of him alone, scraping by just barely. The landscape of the film is frequently downright Beckettian—the shots of a starving Szpilman alone in the bombed-out streets of Warsaw have an eerie, almost post-apocalyptic feel to them. This is a man who has seen the very worst, the ugliest things that humans can do to one another, and just as he fears he might not be able to go on, he resolves to go on.

Polanski and his screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, wisely refrain from drawing larger points about humanity and the Holocaust; they're keenly aware that the more particular you get, the more universal you get, and that Szpilman's personal history told in such powerful and specific detail is more moving than any sermon or homily on these dark times ever could be. They and the rest of the creditable production team have set out to tell one man's improbable, frequently horrifying though ultimately redeeming story, and they have done so without preaching to us or sentimentalizing anything, which makes The Pianist a remarkable accomplishment.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Polanski's eye for composition is extraordinary, and is done justice in this full and rich transfer. Occasional scratches and other imperfections are evident, unfortunately, but the palette is well served on this disc, and the images are frequently luminous.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Spanishno
Dolby Digital
English, Frenchno

Audio Transfer Review: The film has a full, rich sound mix, and it sounds just fine on DVD. The dynamics are especially well handled on the DTS track; the Dolby 5.1 English-language track sounds wonderful, but when the characters speak softly, the mix is so low as to make them almost inaudible. The filmmakers have also made the curious choice of having their characters speak predominantly in English, but slipping with some frequency into German.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. advertisement for the film's soundtrack
Extras Review: The extras aren't as extensive as one might hope, but they do offer some insight nonetheless. A Story of Survival (39m:41s), features interviews with Brody, the producers, costume designer, production designer, screenwriter and director of photography, but the real star here is Roman Polanski, whose own family (from Krakow) faced many of the same obstacles and met the same fate at the hands of the Nazis as did Szpilman's. There are only a few fleeting seconds of the actual Wladyslaw Szpilman (who died in 2000), and some clips from World War II so accurately reproduced in the feature; when Polanski sums up the film in a few words, he sounds distinctly like Noah Cross, insisting that "anyone is capable of anything."

Brief biographies and filmographies are for Polanski, Brody, and Harwood, the film's trio of Oscar winners.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

An affecting, emotional film that ably uses one man's tale as a way to dramatize and re-create the worst horrors of the Holocaust. It's a beautiful film, though the extras on this disc hardly do the feature justice.


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