The Pianist (2002)


Introduction

The Pianist is a 2002 war biographical drama film produced and directed by Roman Polanski, with a script by Ronald Harwood, and starring Adrien Brody.

It is based on the autobiographical book The Pianist (1946), a Holocaust memoir by the Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, a Holocaust survivor.

The film was a co-production of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Poland.

Outline

In September 1939, Władysław Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist, is playing live on the radio in Warsaw when the station is bombed during Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. Hoping for a quick victory, Szpilman rejoices with his family at home when learning that Britain and France have declared war on Germany. But the promised aid does not come. Fighting lasts for just over a month, with both the German and Soviet armies invading Poland at the same time on different fronts. Warsaw becomes part of the Nazi-controlled General Government. Jews are soon prevented from working or owning businesses, and are also made to wear blue Star of David armbands.

By November 1940, Szpilman and his family are forced from their home into the isolated and overcrowded Warsaw Ghetto, where conditions only get worse. People starve, the SS guards are brutal, starving children are abandoned and there are dead bodies everywhere. On one occasion, the Szpilmans witness the SS kill an entire family in an apartment across the street during a round-up, including dumping a wheelchair-bound man out a window.

On 16 August 1942, Szpilman and his family are transported to Treblinka extermination camp as part of Operation Reinhard. But a friend in the Jewish Ghetto Police recognizes Władysław at the Umschlagplatz, and separates him from his family. He becomes a slave labourer, and learns of a coming Jewish revolt. He helps the resistance by smuggling weapons into the ghetto, on one occasion narrowly avoiding a suspicious guard. Szpilman eventually manages to escape, and goes into hiding with help from a non-Jewish friend, Andrzej Bogucki, and his wife, Janina.

In April 1943, Szpilman watches from his window as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which he aided, unfolds, and then ultimately fails. After a neighbor discovers Szpilman in the flat, he is forced to flee to a second hiding place. The new room has a piano in it, but he is compelled to keep quiet, while beginning to suffer from jaundice.

In August 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising, the Armia Krajowa attacks a German building across the street from Szpilman’s hideout. Tank shells hit the apartment, forcing him to flee. Over the course of the following months, Warsaw is destroyed. Szpilman is left alone to search desperately for shelter and supplies among the ruins. He eventually makes his way to a house where he finds a can of pickled cucumbers. While trying to open it, he is noticed by Wehrmacht officer Wilm Hosenfeld, who learns that Szpilman is a pianist. He asks Szpilman to play on a grand piano in the house. The decrepit Szpilman manages to play Chopin’s “Ballade in G minor”. Hosenfeld lets Szpilman hide in the attic of the empty house. From here, he is regularly supplied with food by the German officer.

In January 1945, the Germans are retreating from the Red Army. Hosenfeld meets Szpilman for the last time, promising he will listen to him on Polish Radio after the war. He gives Szpilman his greatcoat to keep warm, and leaves. In Spring 1945, former inmates of a Nazi concentration camp pass by a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp holding captured German soldiers and verbally abuse them. Hosenfeld, being one of the prisoners, overhears a released inmate lamenting over his former career as a violinist. He asks him whether he knows Szpilman, which he confirms, and Hosenfeld wishes him to beg Szpilman, to return him favour and help release him. Later the violinist and Szpilman reach the prisoners camp, but find it abandoned.

After the war, Szpilman is back at the Polish Radio, where he performs Chopin’s “Grand Polonaise brillante” to a large prestigious audience. An epilogue states that Szpilman died in 2000 at the age of 88, whereas Hosenfeld died in 1952, still in Soviet captivity.

Cast

  • Adrien Brody as Władysław Szpilman.
  • Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld.
  • Frank Finlay as Samuel Szpilman.
  • Maureen Lipman as Edwarda Szpilman.
  • Emilia Fox as Dorota.
  • Ed Stoppard as Henryk Szpilman.
  • Julia Rayner as Regina Szpilman.
  • Jessica Kate Meyer as Halina Szpilman.
  • Ronan Vibert as Andrzej Bogucki.
  • Ruth Platt as Janina Bogucki.
  • Andrew Tiernan as Szalas.
  • Michał Żebrowski as Jurek.
  • Roy Smiles as Itzhak Heller.
  • Richard Ridings as Mr. Lipa.
  • Daniel Caltagirone as Majorek.
  • Valentine Pelka as Dorota’s Husband.
  • Zbigniew Zamachowski as Customer with Coins.
  • Ireneusz Machnicki as SS Officer.
  • Cezary Krajewski as SS Officer.

Production

The story had deep connections with director Roman Polanski because he escaped from the Kraków Ghetto as a child after the death of his mother. He ended up living in a Polish farmer’s barn until the war’s end. His father almost died in the camps, but they reunited after the end of World War II.

Joseph Fiennes was Polanski’s first choice for the lead role, but he turned it down due to a previous commitment to a theatrical role. Over 1,400 actors auditioned for the role of Szpilman at a casting call in London. Unsatisfied with all who tried, Polanski sought to cast Adrien Brody, whom he saw as ideal for the role during their first meeting in Paris.

Principal photography on The Pianist began on 09 February 2001 in Babelsberg Studio in Potsdam, Germany. The Warsaw Ghetto and the surrounding city were recreated on the backlot of Babelsberg Studio as they would have looked during the war. Old Soviet Army barracks were used to create the ruined city, as they were going to be destroyed anyway.

The first scenes of the film were shot at the old army barracks. Soon after, the film crew moved to a villa in Potsdam, which served as the house where Szpilman meets Hosenfeld. On 02 March 2001, filming then moved to an abandoned Soviet military hospital in Beelitz, Germany. The scenes that featured German soldiers destroying a Warsaw hospital with flamethrowers were filmed here. On 15 March, filming finally moved to Babelsberg Studios. The first scene shot at the studio was the complex and technically demanding scene in which Szpilman witnesses the ghetto uprising.

Filming at the studios ended on 26 March, and moved to Warsaw on 29 March. The rundown district of Praga was chosen for filming because of its abundance of original buildings. The art department built onto these original buildings, re-creating World War II–era Poland with signs and posters from the period. Additional filming also took place around Warsaw. The Umschlagplatz scene where Szpilman, his family, and hundreds of other Jews wait to be taken to the extermination camps was filmed at the National Defence University of Warsaw.

Principal photography ended in July 2001, and was followed by months of post-production in Paris.

Music

  • The piano piece heard at the beginning of the film is Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor Lento con gran espressione, Op. posth.
  • The piano piece that is heard being played by a next door neighbour while Szpilman was in hiding at an apartment is also an arrangement of Umówiłem się z nią na dziewiątą.
  • The piano music heard in the abandoned house when Szpilman had just discovered a hiding place in the attic is the Piano Sonata No. 14 (Moonlight Sonata) by Beethoven. It would later be revealed that German officer Hosenfeld was the pianist. The German composition juxtaposed with the mainly Polish/Chopin selection of Szpilman.
  • The piano piece played when Szpilman is confronted by Hosenfeld is Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, but the version played in the movie was shortened (the entire piece lasts about 10 minutes).
  • The cello piece heard at the middle of the film, played by Dorota, is the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.
  • The piano piece heard at the end of the film, played with an orchestra, is Chopin’s Grande Polonaise brillante, Op. 22.
  • Shots of Szpilman’s hands playing the piano in close-up were performed by Polish classical pianist Janusz Olejniczak (b. 1952), who also performed on the soundtrack.
  • Since Polanski wanted the film to be as realistic as possible, any scene showing Brody playing was actually his playing overdubbed by recordings performed by Olejniczak. In order for Brody’s playing to look like it was at the level of Szpilman’s, he spent many months prior to and during the filming practising so that his keystrokes on the piano would convince viewers that Brody himself was playing.

Release

The Pianist was widely acclaimed by critics, with Brody’s performance, Harwood’s screenplay, and Polanski’s direction receiving special praise.

Home Release

The Pianist was released digitally on 27 May 2003 in a double-sided disc Special Edition DVD, with the film on one side and special features on the other. Some Bonus Material included a making-of, interviews with Brody, Polanski, and Harwood, and clips of Szpilman playing the piano. The Polish DVD edition included an audio commentary track by production designer Starski and director of photography Edelman.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment released the film on HD-DVD on 8 January 2008 with extras comprising the featurette “A Story of Survival” and rare footage of the real Władysław Szpilman playing his piano, as well as additional interviews with Adrien Brody and other crew.

Optimum Home Entertainment released The Pianist to the European market on Blu-ray as part of their StudioCanal Collection on 13 September 2010, the film’s second release on Blu-ray. The first was troublesome due to issues with subtitles; the initial BD lacked subtitles for spoken German dialogue. Optimum later rectified this, but the initial release also lacked notable special features. The StudioCanal Collection version includes an extensive Behind the Scenes look, as well as several interviews with the makers of the film and Szpilman’s relatives.

Trivia

  • During the shooting of the movie, while scouting locations in Krakow, Roman Polanski met a man who had helped Polanski’s family survive the war.
  • Notice how director of photography Pawel Edelman slowly drains the color out of all the scenes as the film progresses to signify the deterioration of the city and of Szpilman himself.
  • Adrien Brody became the youngest person to date to win an Academy Award for Best Actor when he won for this film at the age of 29.
  • This is the first film ever to receive the Best Film Award at the Césars (France’s national film award) with not a single word of French spoken in it.
  • Adrien Brody lost 14 kg (31 lb) for the role of Wladyslaw Szpilman by eating a daily diet of two boiled eggs and green tea for breakfast, a little chicken for lunch, and a small piece of fish or chicken with steamed vegetables for dinner over a six week period. Initially his weight was 73 kg (161 lb).
  • “Szpilman” is the Polish phonetic spelling of the German word/name “Spielmann”, meaning bandsman or minstrel, hence Hosenfeld’s remark that it is a “good name for a pianist.”
  • The film is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman. The director Roman Polanski tried to make the film as faithful of an adaptation as possible, with additional inspiration coming from events that happened to him while he was a boy during the war.
  • The Pianist met with significant critical praise, and received multiple awards and nominations. It was awarded the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.
  • At the 75th Academy Awards, the film won for Best Director (Polanski), Best Adapted Screenplay (Harwood), and Best Actor (Brody), and was nominated for four others, including Best Picture.
  • It also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film and BAFTA Award for Best Direction in 2003, and seven French Césars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Brody.
  • It was included in BBC’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century in 2016.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): Roman Polanski.
  • Producer(s): Roman Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde, and Akshansh Nikhanj.
  • Writer(s): Ronald Harwood.
  • Music: Wojciech Kilar.
  • Cinematography: Pawel Edelman.
  • Editor(s): Herve de Luze.
  • Production: Canal+, Studio Babelsberg, and Studio Canal+.
  • Distributor(s): Focus Features and StuidoCanal.
  • Release Date: 24 May 2002 (Cannes International Film Festival), 06 September 2002 (Poland), and 25 September 2002 (France).
  • Running Time: 150 minutes.
  • Rating: 15/Rated.
  • Country: UK, France, Germany, and Poland.
  • Language: English and German.

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