Szpilman (Brody) was playing piano for the Polish state radio when the Luftwaffe attacked in September 1939. The film's first half-hour goes predictably beat-by-beat as the Germans enter the city, strip the Jews of their rights and build the walled ghetto. Szpilman and family (including headstrong brother Henryk, well-played by Ed Stoppard) find employment and avoid immediate deportation. Eventually, the Szpilman family is deported, except for Wladyslaw, who is pulled from line as he's about to enter a railcar. Shuttled around Warsaw by sympathizers, Wladyslaw survives until the entire town is in ruins and he's forced to fend for himself. In an extended sequence with little dialogue, Wladyslaw, bearded and sickly, wanders the city hoping to avoid his Nazi captors.
Once the film sloughs off the history lessons of the first half-hour to focus on Wladyslaw's fight to survive, "The Pianist" shines. The audience can sense Polanski putting his heart into the film. Production designer Allan Starski, who won an Oscar for "Schindler's List," creates a bombed-out Warsaw that's almost beautiful in its epic sadness. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman effectively makes the ghetto scenes grainier than the pre-and-post war scenes. The sad-eyed Brody is excellent as Wladyslaw, even though we know very little about him and he only exists as our entrée into Warsaw.
Though certainly not at the level of "Schindler's List," "The Pianist" is a worthy Holocaust drama and a welcome return to form for Roman Polanski. Starring Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann. Directed by Roman Polanski. Written by Ronald Harwood. Produced by Polanski, Robert Benmussa and Alain Sarde. A USA release.. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 148 min