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 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 Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Optimum Releasing and Studio Canal bring 'The Pianist' to Blu-ray on Region B locked, BD25 disc inside a slightly thicker than normal amaray case. At startup, the disc goes straight to a main menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
'The Pianist' puts on a great performance with this often exceptional 1080p/VC-1 encode, giving this poignant tale of survival a good deal of beauty amid all the ugliness. The photography displays brilliant contrast, with plenty of clean, crisp whites everywhere, allowing for some remarkable shots that see far into the distance and an excellent depth of field. Colors are bold and energetic at the beginning, but as the plot grows gloomier so to the majority of the palette, mostly in the primaries. Secondary hues remain full-bodied and attractive, giving some small glimmers of life. Black levels could be a tad stronger, but they're consistent and generally deep with good shadow delineation when the cinematography allows for visibility of small background objects.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the transfer shows outstanding clarity and resolution. The smallest detail in the architecture of the ghetto, from the individual bricks on buildings and the cobblestone streets to the grain in the wooden bridge and the cracks in the walls, are discrete and very well-defined. Fine lines in the costuming, hair and furniture are distinct and razor-sharp while facial complexions appear natural with astonishing lifelike textures during close-ups.
Although a thin veil of grain is ever present and mostly unobtrusive, providing the image with an appreciable film-like quality, it can appear a bit more pronounced in few sequences, which tends to soften the picture somewhat. Some very minor, nearly negligible aliasing does creep up as well, but it's not blatantly apparent or grossly distracting. I also detected a tad of ringing in several objects, but it's likely related to the photography since it happens most often with darker objects against high contrast backgrounds. All in all, the high-def presentation makes a beautiful and enjoyable watch on Blu-ray with very little to complain about.
The biographical war drama also arrives with an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The design is mostly a front-heavy presentation since the narrative is more character-driven than anything else. Still, the track conveys a worthwhile aural experience that's engaging and immensely satisfying.
The soundstage feels spacious and welcoming with broad imaging and superb fidelity. Dialogue reproduction is precise and well-prioritized while channel separation is well-balanced with fluid, flawless panning and convincing off-screen effects. The mid-range is highly detailed with often extraordinary, room-penetrating clarity. Action sequences and the several segments with piano music are distinct with astonishing definition in the higher frequencies. Rear activity feels largely limited and reserved only for moments of battle, but employed with great subtlety and ambiance, expanding the soundfield with wonderfully immersive effectiveness.
The only imaginable point of complaint would be in the noticeably weak low-end, which doesn't appear to ever dig too deep. It mostly stays in the upper ranges, even higher than the expected mid-bass level. This is unfortunate because the many action scenes with gunfire and explosions general lack the sort of mid-level punch we'd expect from such moments. Granted, this could all be intentional, but it's unfortunate nonetheless since even the music suffers from a deficiency in depth and weight. All things considered, it's not a bad lossless mix, and it still manages to satisfy, leaving behind a good and memorable impression.
This is a bare-bones release.
A harrowing and gut-wrenching portrait of survival, 'The Pianist' tells the distressing tale of Polish pianist and composer W?adys?aw Szpilman during the occupation and scrambling to endure amid the war. With a superb performance by Adrien Brody, Roman Polanski directs with an incredible eye to detail that feels both heartbreakingly real and like a twisted nightmare of the worst and best in humanity. The Blu-ray from the United Kingdom arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation, despite a few, rather negligible drawbacks. Sadly, this bare-bones release will leave fans hoping and waiting for a better high-def edition in the future, but for the moment, the Blu-ray is worth the price.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.