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The Pianist

As the joke around Hollywood used to go, Roman Polanski is the original five-foot pole you wouldn't want to touch anything with. Indeed, despite his spotty directorial career with its masterpieces and misfires, few directors have squandered such great promise, or as much opportunity. Famously self-exiled from the United States in 1978 after fleeing the country rather than serve time behind bars on a statutory rape conviction, Polanksi has labored quietly in Europe, where he's done projects ranging from the Hardy adaptation Tess (1979) to the spectacularly awful Pirates (1986). But with 2002's The Pianist, Polanski proved he still could deliver a solid piece of filmmaking, even winning an Oscar for Best Director. Unfortunately for him, he could not accept it in person without a police escort. Based on a true story, The Pianist concerns six years in the life of accomplished musician Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a man considered to be the most talented pianist in Poland, if not the entire world. "Wladek" enjoys a comfortable job playing on Polish radio, while living at home with his tight-knit parents, brother, and two sisters. But after the Germans invade Poland in September 1939, the Szpilmans learn their lives are about to change. At first they struggle with restrictions placed upon Jews by the Nazis, in particular limitations on personal property. Soon they are forced to wear arm-bands with the Star of David on them, to publicly identify themselves as Jews. And after all Jews in the city are relocated to a central district, which is then walled off as a prison-ghetto, they realize it's only a matter of time before they are "re-located" to concentration camps. Miraculously, Wladek avoids boarding one of the infamous Nazi boxcars, but eventually he escapes the ghetto and finds himself on the run, moving from one location to the next, relying on Polish sympathizers for his sustenance and shelter. At its heart, The Pianist is a simple, moving story of struggle and survival, and it's easy to see why Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoirs appealed to Roman Polanski so much — separated from his parents as a child during the Nazi occupation, he fled the Krakow ghetto and lived for several years in the Polish countryside as a child refugee. And perhaps that is what makes the film unusual as an historical account — Wladek lives through history, but he is not a witness to it. Major events pass him by, such as the 1943 Warsaw ghetto revolt (he only sees part of it from outside the walls), the Allied invasion of Normandy, and the Russian advance from the East. It's history heard third-hand. But, perhaps more importantly, Polanski was fascinated with the idea of the artist who has been denied his audience and simply decides to carry on, aware that his entire world has been erased from all but his memory. As Wladyslaw Szpilman, Adrien Brody deserved his Best Actor Oscar, which thankfully was awarded (for once) to a performance that succeeds by subtle notes. Wladek is good-natured and unaffected by his talent, and his lack of arrogance makes him seem particularly unprepared to survive his extensive ordeal. And while few films have presented Nazi atrocities as graphically as The Pianist, the story also takes into account the Jewish police who oversaw their own being led into boxcars, as well as the true story of one Nazi officer (Thomas Kretschmann) who gave the near-dead Wladek assistance, aware that Hitler's war plans would soon condemn him to a fate that would be even worse. Universal's DVD release of The Pianist features a crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Features include an insightful documentary, "A Story of Survival," which features extensive comments from Polanski, as well as rare Nazi archive films (40 min.). Also on board is the theatrical trailer, notes, and a soundtrack promo. Keep-case.

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