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Case Number 12814

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The Pianist (HD DVD)

Universal // 2003 // 150 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // January 24th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Brendan Babish still can't understand why Adrien Brody would follow this film with a Diet Coke commercial.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Pianist, published August 25th, 2004, is also available.

The Charge

Music was his passion. Surviving was his masterpiece.

Opening Statement

In 2002, 69-year-old Roman Polanski directed what may be his best film, The Pianist. The film's star, Adrien Brody, became the youngest recipient ever of an Oscar for best actor for his performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman, professional musician and Holocaust survivor. Now this modern classic is getting the HD DVD treatment in a new Universal release.

Facts of the Case

Based on his memoirs, The Pianist is the story of how Wladyslaw Szpilman's survived in Warsaw, Poland, for almost six years under Nazi rule. Szpilman, a Jewish piano player, was living with his family in a spacious apartment when the Nazis invaded. While his musical talent initially helped his family survive their move into the cramped ghetto, the Szpilmans were soon split up by their German captors. Wladyslaw finds himself alone, forced to do manual labor in freezing temperatures while his life is under constant threat from sadistic guards. At this point, the year is 1942. There are still three more years of war until liberation.

Though Warsaw was one of the most devastated cities in one of the most devastated countries of the bloodiest war of all time, Szpilman survived while never leaving its borders. This is his story.

The Evidence

I have to admit, twice before I sat down and tried to watch The Pianist. Both times I fell asleep within the first ten minutes. Though I had heard from several respected acquaintances that the film was a masterpiece, I couldn't help but conclude that The Pianist earned much of its praise because it was one of those Holocaust movies that it would be immoral to disparage in any way.

I was wrong.

This week I started the movie early in the evening—the two previous attempts had been made sometime around midnight. After staying conscious throughout the two-and-a-half-hour film, I now know what I have long suspected: Chicago did not deserve the 2002 Oscar for best picture.

As alluded to earlier, it is difficult to critically evaluate any creative work related to the Holocaust. It is relatively easy to depict the horrors of the ordeal, but how does one judge the artistic merit of such an endeavor? The Pianist certainly succeeds at the less ambitious, though nonetheless important, task of demonstrating the capricious evil of the Nazis. However, it also succeeds at imparting the far more nuanced, varied aspects of humanity brought forth by this wide-scale massacre.

In addition to the straightforward horror wrought by the Nazis—of which there is much on display here—Polanski shows Jewish police officers patrolling the ghetto, treating members of their community almost as harshly as sadistic German soldiers. There are Polish citizens who risk their lives, and expend their wealth, to protect Szpilman; there are also Poles who ignore Nazi atrocities and only see the occupation of their country as an opportunity to make money. And then there is Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann, King Kong), a German captain who shows little human emotion, who is likely guilty of war crimes, but still manages to be Szpilman's ultimate savior.

All of this makes The Pianist an intriguing, complicated film. Yet it is Adrien Brody's heartbreaking performance that makes it a masterpiece. Brody's wide, mournful eyes perfectly reflect the horror around him without ever seeming cloying or affected. The material here naturally provides several opportunities for bathos, but Brody never hits a false note. It is an amazing performance, and it provides the soul of a powerful film that may be the greatest ever about World War II.

The picture on the HD DVD print is almost as impressive as the film itself. Though some of the colors are slightly muted, this seems appropriate to the movie's time period. In fact, while watching the film I found myself occasionally comparing it to Schindler's List and, though I can't fault Spielberg's decision to shoot in black and white, I think Polanski's understated color tones more powerfully evoked the time period than any other film I have seen.

The sound is a bit front loaded, but in a way this makes the musical pieces and action sequences that much more powerful. All in all, I can't fault the presentation one bit.

The sole extra feature here is one that was carried over from the original DVD release. It is the 30-minute featurette, "A Story of Survival." Its highlights include an emotional Polanski discussing the film (many elements incorporated his own experience in Krakow, Poland, during the war) and footage of the real Szpilman playing the piano. It is unfortunate that a film so wildly heralded—and so personal to its filmmaker—comes with such scant extras, but there it is.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The Pianist's largely anonymous cast is one of the film's unheralded strengths. Not only are the performances universally strong, but there were no distracting character actors who seemed strangely familiar, or whom I remembered from inferior films. This greatly enhances Polanski's ability to fashion a striking recreation of 1940 Warsaw.

The flip side of this is Brody. While he was a relative unknown in 2002, he is now a far more familiar face. This wouldn't be much of a liability if Brody hadn't parlayed his new cache into some odd career choices, most prominently—at least for me—the decision to head a campaign for Diet Coke shortly after winning his Oscar.

Closing Statement

The Pianist is a masterpiece and one of the best films of the young century. If you haven't seen it yet, this HD DVD presentation is a great way to get acquainted.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 96
Audio: 94
Extras: 81
Acting: 98
Story: 99
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
Audio Formats:
• TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
• English
• French
Running Time: 150 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Insight into the Making of the Film and its Authenticity
• Roman Polanski's Own Story of Survival during World War II
• Behind-the-scenes interviews with Roman Polanski, Adrien Brody, and Ronald Harwood
• Clips of Wladyslaw Szpilman Playing the Piano


• IMDb

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