Here’s a Holocaust survival story that hinges less on heroics than on luck and coincidence: Polish radio star Wladyslaw Szpilman, an acclaimed musician, was plucked from a death-camp train by an acquaintance, hidden by members of the Polish resistance, and spared by a music-loving German officer, and thus outlasted the horrors of Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Far from diluting The Pianist’s power, the sheer arbitrariness of Szpilman’s deliverance provides a chillingly clear-eyed, if ultimately hopeful, vision of how tenuous survival can be. That the film is based on Szpilman’s memoir and was directed by Roman Polanski, himself a survivor of the Kraków ghetto, gives it an unquestionable authenticity as it particularizes a monstrous historical event.
As Szpilman, Academy Award winner Adrien Brody has the grace to convey without sentimentality or self-pity the utter pathos of a man of culture reduced to a wild-eyed scarecrow. And while his – and, presumably, Polanski’s – diffidence may at times mute the film’s emotions, its unflinching view of this one unlikely triumph is a moving reminder of just how rare it was.