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 Nazi's 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 it. 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.
Studio Canal released 'The Pianist' on HD DVD in the U.K., distributed through Optimum Home Entertainment. Seeing as there is no existing next-gen release in the US (nor any planned as of this writing), this is my first experience seeing the film in high-def. Happily, I was more than impressed with this lovely and elegant 1080p/VC-1 encode, framed at the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
'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. The transfer is also 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 presentation.
This import HD DVD includes two audio mixes: an English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround and a French DTS-HD High-Resolution 5.1 Surround track. (Note that the French-language DTS track is only accessible via the French language menu.) In any case, due to current limitations with next-gen hardware, only the 1.5mbps DTS "core" of the DTS-MA track is accessible, but even in limited bandwidth form the film's sound design is surprisingly strong considering the subject matter.
Appropriately, this is a restrained mix. 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 nicely with great accuracy. Otherwise, atmosphere is always audible if slight (largely location effects and general ambiance).
At the same time, frequency response is superior and the warmth to the track is inviting. 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.
(Thanks to theHDphantom for his help locating the French track on this disc!)
Typical of Studio Canal's European next-gen releases, there's not a single extra included on this HD DVD import of 'The Pianist.' Compared to the domestic standard-def DVD, it's a particular shame, as that version included a 35-minute documentary on the making of the film that was most welcome.
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.
Likewise, this Optimum Home Entertainment/Studio Canal release is a very fine-looking and good sounding high-def presentation. The total absence of extras is a particular disappointment (and drags down the overall grade), but it's hard to argue with the exquisite quality of this import disc.