Written by Ronald Harwood, The Pianist is the true story of Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody). Born in 1912, Szpilman was a pianist known throughout Europe when Hitler's army invaded Poland in September of 1939. We meet him during a Polish radio performance as Nazi tanks roll into Warsaw. Unmarried and still living with his parents, brother and two sisters, Szpilman is a man of mild disposition and few political interests. He loves his music, and he's got a crush on a pretty blond cellist. But he's Jewish, and, caught in the crush of psychotic race hatred, he will not be allowed to live a normal life.
First, like all the Jews in Warsaw, Szpilman is forced to wear a star of David on his sleeve and forbidden access to most public places. Restrictions are placed on his income. Then, he and his family are evicted from their comfortable, middle-class apartment and crowded into two rooms in a Nazi-created Jewish ghetto along with all the other Jews in the city. They are forced to do manual labor for German companies. And then they are packed into boxcars headed for Treblinka. In a miracle of happenstance, a Jewish policeman collaborating with the Nazis saves Szpilman moments before he is shoved aboard the death train. But he will never see any member of his family again.
Polanski, himself one of his family's few survivors of the Holocaust, gives us all the horror we can handle. A young Nazi officer beats an old Jewish man for the sin of walking on the sidewalk instead of in the gutter. For the sheer thrill of humiliation, Nazi guards make Jews dance in the street. Gestapo thugs arrest a family around their dinner table and order them to march to the street. Because the grandfather is confined to a wheelchair, they throw him off a fourth-story balcony. The others they gun down and crush under the wheels of their cars. A young woman is shot in the face for the affront of asking a Nazi a question. At random and without bothering to allege an offense, a Nazi selects a line of Jewish workers, makes them lie in the street, and shoots them in the head one after the other. In three and a half years, the Nazis reduce the Jewish population of Warsaw from more than half a million to less than 60,000.
In the ghetto Jews are starved until they steal from each other and lick spilled food from the street like maddened animals. The Szpilmans are put to work sorting the belongings of other families who have been sent to the gas chambers before them. People try to bolster themselves with false hope. Some collaborate with their tormentors in hopes of saving themselves. A mother smothers her baby trying to hush his cries lest he alert the Nazis to their hiding place.
But Polanski gives us the other side of Szpilman's story, too. In the ghetto Jews exploit the black market to gather weapons at the risk of torture and death for every man or woman who hides a pistol in a potato sack. Eventually, they rise up against their persecutors with the force of arms. Polish gentiles risk hanging by hiding Jews in their attics and cellars. And perhaps miraculously, even some in Nazi uniform risk themselves to extend the hand of mercy to those they have been taught to despise. But in the end, is it enough to tug us from the abyss of despair?
Though this film presumably hews closer to the historical truth, it doesn't pack quite the emotional wallop of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. Neither is it as sophisticated nor as daring in its radical call for forgiveness as Jan Hrebejk's Divided We Fall. In that regard, The Pianist is a film more of stoic resignation than determined optimism. It stands the evil beside the good and offers little reason to hope that those, like Szpilman, who live to express beauty will ever prevail, save through the accident of survival. What is this human creature? There are good among us. But in the long term, what can be said in defense of most of us?