If anybody has reason to helm a Holocaust drama, it's Roman Polanski, who as a boy narrowly escaped the concentration camps of eastern Europe. That personal connection informs his translation of the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the late classical musician who likewise avoided the camps to fight for survival in and around the Warsaw ghetto.
As depicted here, Szpilman (Adrien Brody) saw his comfortable prewar existence as a composer and radio entertainer become a casualty of Hitler's final solution. But he didn't lose his life, thanks to valuable acquaintances and other whims of fate. (One would be tempted to employ the term "good fortune," were the irony not so horrific given the context.) While Szpilman's family endured deportation, he went into hiding, guarding his Jewishness from his neighbors and eventually living like an animal within a Warsaw landscape ravaged by battle.
Polanski presents the Nazis' campaign of annihilation like a recitation of war crimes. Relevant dates appear on the screen as the city's Jewish population is decimated, Szpilman winnows to a human shell and solitude engulfs the story. A major theme of the movie is the tragic loss of self: The Holocaust doesn't merely threaten the pianist's life, but thwarts his defining passion for music. Family-owned instruments are lost, and the urge to play falls victim to the silence that hiding demands.
What potential for melodrama lurks in these ideas, however, remains unexploited by Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood. Every time history presents them with an opportunity for cheap manipulation, they veer off into another direction that reinforces the stark reality of the production. Shot in Poland in a re-created Warsaw ghetto (the real thing no longer exists), "The Pianist" is 148 minutes in an utterly convincing deathtrap.
The movie's greatest accomplishment, though, is to make murder outrageous again. Every impromptu assassination committed by the Nazis arrives with a shocking force that defies desensitization. Rarely has killing -- that most familiar of screen commodities -- appeared so harrowing in its randomness. And any movie that can make you sit bolt upright in your seat at the extinguishing of a make-believe life has proved itself an adept advocate for real ones.