HD DVD
Recommended
3.5 stars
Overall Grade
3.5 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
5 Stars
HD Video Quality
4.5 Stars
HD Audio Quality
4 Stars
Supplements
1 Stars
High-Def Extras
0 Stars
Bottom Line
Recommended

The Pianist

Street Date:
January 8th, 2008
Reviewed by:
Peter Bracke
Review Date: 1
January 8th, 2008
Movie Release Year:
2002
Studio:
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Length:
144 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Rated R
Release Country
United States

Editor's Notes

Portions of this review were first published in our review of the HD DVD (UK Import) edition of 'The Pianist.'

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

By 2002, most in Hollywood had written off legendary director Roman Polanski as a once-shining star past his prime. Though he had burst on the scene in the late sixties with films like 'Rosemary's Baby' and 'Chinatown,' a much-publicized sex scandal forced him to relocate to France, and what followed was a second-act slide into big-budget adventure ('Pirates'), lowbrow erotica ('Bitter Moon'), formulaic thrillers ('Frantic') and weak horror ('The Ninth Gate').

But then, like a phoenix from the ashes came 'The Pianist,' a film which would not only restore Polanski's luster with just about every major critic in the free world, but that would go on to win the controversial auteur a Best Director Oscar for his efforts.

Based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the film tells the story of a Jewish-Polish musician whose promising career as a pianist is cut short by the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. Forced to relocate to the Warsaw ghetto, Szpilman and his family are robbed of all their rights, finances and property, including Szpilman's sole outlet for creative expression -- his piano. When the Nazis begin to exterminate the Jews, Szpilman loses his family to the Krakow death camps, and after a failed attempt at rebellion is ultimately forced to hide in isolation and silence. As the war drags on, his only hope of salvation will come from the most unlikely of allies....

It may not be politically correct to say, but by the time 'The Pianist' hit theaters, I have to admit to having felt a certain Holocaust fatigue. Following the outpouring of critical, commercial and Academy love bestowed upon Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List,' the cavalcade of similarly-themed feature films and documentaries that followed had begun to feel numbing. Of course, there will never be a lack of important stories to tell about the Holocaust, but few seemed to be asking the tough moral questions required to illuminate the subject matter in truly new and enlightening ways.

In bringing his own voice to 'The Pianist,' Polanski (who himself escaped from the Krakow Ghetto as a child, and lost his parents there) manages to reach this higher level while at the same time exercising extraordinary restraint. As the atrocities mount in the first half of the film, Polanski allows us -- perhaps for the first time -- to see them through the eyes of someone who actually lived through them. The resulting images still confound, yet for once they don't have the removed feel of an aged newsreel.

However, it is the second half of 'The Pianist' that fully articulates a point of view on the nature of the "banality of evil" that seems so incomprehensible. Polanski subtly but brilliantly uses the symbol of the piano to both parallel and juxtapose the physical, mental and emotional tortures inflicted on Szpilman. Perhaps even more importantly, in using the Warsaw ghetto as a microcosm for the larger, overwhelming madness of the Holocaust itself, he also has the courage to portray everyone involved in shades of gray. The conclusions Polanski eventually comes to are astute and unforgettable.

Of course, while Polanski's direction was met with near-universal acclaim, 'The Pianist' is likely to be remembered just as much for Adrien Brody's performance, for which he also took home his own Oscar for Best Actor. As Szpilman, he delivers a tour de force performance -- he is the heart and soul of the film, and every single scene rests on his emaciated shoulders. Often with just a single expression, Brody brings a three-dimensional, human gravity to the victims of the Holocaust.

Roman Polanski's most intimate and personal film yet, 'The Pianist' is more than just a return to form for the legendary director -- it just may be the best film ever made about the Holocaust.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

Universal's domestic HD DVD edition of 'The Pianist' follows an import version issued in the UK last year by Optimum Home Entertainment. Boasting a stellar 1080p/VC-1 encode, this new domestic HD DVD looks to be identical to that previous edition. I was happily impressed with how lovely and elegant 'The Pianist' looks in HD, particularly compared to the previous DVD, which was good but is easily trumped here.

'The Pianist' is narratively and visually structured into two halves. The early scenes of the film are vivid and natural, then slowly, as Szpilman's world is systematically decimated, contrast becomes more drab, with colors drained of vibrancy. The master handles it with ease. The source is pristine, with no defects. It's also worth noting that though the second half of the film is certainly not pretty, the film is not truly gritty, and grain is kept in check.

Detail holds firm throughout, with a richness and sense of texture readily apparent. Depth is also strong, and blacks never falter. Likewise, the transfer is quite sharp but not too edgy (though there does appear to be a very slight amount of enhancement applied). Compression artifacts are not an issue, and the image is always very stable and free from noise. Overall, an excellent transfer.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

Universal provides a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) for 'The Pianist,' along with Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround options (640kbps) in both English and French. The film is suitably restrained, so while there are no sonic fireworks here, this presentation certainly does the material justice.

The majority of sounds are directed to the fronts, with only minimal surround use during the film's more violent moments. There is prominent use of discrete rear effects in these instances, which are localized with great accuracy. Otherwise, atmosphere is always audible if slight (largely location effects and general ambiance).

Dynamics are superior, and I was pleased with the warmth and smoothness to the track. The haunting score by Wojciech Kilar, mixed with the classical piano compositions, is evocative and nuanced. The high end is wonderfully free of any harshness, and low bass is also quite strong, though again the subwoofer hardly gets much of a workout for most of the film. Dialogue is expertly rendered, and I never had issues with volume or level matching. A nice, supple, and well-modulated mix.

(Note: In my earlier review of the import version of 'The Pianist,' I gave the audio a 3.5 rating because at the time I was only able to decode the 1.5mpbs "core" of that disc's included DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track. Having now heard the film in Dolby TrueHD at its full resolution, I found the presentation even more impressive, and have bumped up my audio rating to a 4.0.)

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

Universal's edition of 'The Pianist' also trumps the UK import in the extras department. While the British version was featureless, this one at least ports over the lone featurette that graced the standard-def DVD released back in 2004. It's not much, and this is still a way-undernourished package considering the prestige of the film, but it's better than nothing.

  • Featurette: "A Story of Survival" (SD, 28 minutes) - Running close to thirty minutes and presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only, "A Story of Survival" is a nice look at the development and production of 'The Pianist.' Roman Polanski is emotional as he recounts his own growing up amidst the devastation of the Holocaust, and it's obvious how personal the film is to him. We also get rare footage of the real Wladyslaw Szpilman playing his piano, as well as additional interviews with Adrien Brody and other crew. This is a solid featurette, though I can't help but wish there was a lot more on this disc.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

No real exclusives, unless you count Universal's now-standard bookmarking function, which allows you to save your favorite scenes for easy access even after you eject the disc from your player.

Final Thoughts

A searing human portrait of unbelievable perseverance in the face of seemingly impossible odds, 'The Pianist' is a most rewarding film. Roman Polanski (aided by an Academy Award-winning performance by Adrien Brody) brings an autobiographical realism and humanity to the material that elevates it to one of the best -- if not the best -- film ever made on the subject.

This HD DVD release is the best version of the film to hit video yet. The video and audio are very strong, and the extras, while slim, are at least better than the bare-bones HD DVD that was released in the UK last year. No, 'The Pianist' is not the kind of film you will want to watch over and over (or, likely, whip out as demo material), but it is one that absolutely demands to be seen.

Technical Specs

  • HD DVD
  • HD-30 Dual-Layer Disc

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/VC-1
  • 480p/i/MPEG-2 (Supplements Only)

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.85:1

Audio Formats

  • English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-Bit)
  • English Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround (640kbps)
  • French Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround (640kbps)

Subtitles/Captions

  • English SDH
  • French Subtitles

Supplements

  • Featurette

Exclusive HD Content

  • MyScenes

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