"THE PIANIST," winner of last year's Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, takes assured and firm grasp of your senses. Director Roman Polanski squeezes your throat, puts his hands over your mouth, confounds you, forces you to watch things you cannot bear, and roils you with dread and hope.
For such is the ordeal of Wladyslaw Szpilman (a pitch-perfect Adrien Brody), a young pianist from Warsaw whose introduction to World War II is a violent explosion. It's September 1939, when German bombs shatter the state radio station, where Wladyslaw is performing Chopin. After the blast, Wladyslaw's much more concerned about continuing to play than appreciating this harbinger of the coming horrors.
But then, denial extends everywhere. Wladyslaw's family -- his father, mother, brother and sisters -- believe the Allies will save Poland from the invading Nazis. In no time, however, they have been moved to a walled ghetto. They're wearing the Star of David on their arms. And they are waiting constantly for death -- either at the hands of some demented Nazi soldier, who might execute them on the street for any reason, or by the trains that take Polish Jews, gypsies and others considered undesirable to the death camps.
Wladyslaw's fame saves him. Grabbed by a friend, a Jewish collaborator who likes his music, he's saved from death as he's about to embark on one of those trains. But his family is not so lucky.
Left alone to scurry like a rat from safe house to hidey hole, he's painfully alone. And you are with him, too, as he ducks this constant threat of death. As he fights for his own survival, Warsaw is emptied of its Jews. An entire population is draining away. And with each death, his moral responsibility grows. Why should he live over others? What should he do about this wholesale murder? Shouldn't he help his family?
And yet Wladyslaw clings, almost absurdly, to his own conceits. He's particular about his clothing. And he seems to be waiting impatiently for his moment to play music again. He's a complex human being, and we wonder about his moral awareness. You want to shake him by the shoulders: Don't you see what's happening? Look! A whole race is disappearing. And you want to play your infernal piano? That Wladyslaw isn't "playing cricket" by not emoting enough, well, that's part of an interesting tension. What mysteries people are.
Wladyslaw spends much of the movie in silence and isolation. He's forever hiding -- and doomed to watch the destruction from high windows. Polanski is up to his stylistic brilliance -- keeping him (and therefore you) away from the action. By doing this, he and screenwriter Ronald ("The Dresser") Harwood are forcing you into something more than mere horror. They want you to be contemplative, even as you weather tension and anxiety. Look what humankind is capable of, you are thinking, as Nazis toss a wheelchair-bound man into the street from a high window.
The violent details are intense, and they remind you of the wanton brutality in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Nazis walk around with a sort of promiscuous, impulse-driven cruelty. They force people to dance to music. They might execute someone, point-blank, for merely asking a question. Men are ordered to lie on the ground. One by one, they are shot, point-blank. The ones at the end of the line, they know they are dead. It's a hideous spectacle. And you're stuck up in the window, powerless.
The film abounds in metaphor, irony and symbols -- a sonata of human suffering and tragedy. On one occasion, Wladyslaw stares at a piano, an instrument he once used to charm people's ears and hearts. Now it's simply an instrument of noise, a dangerous hulking structure that would bring him instant discovery and death. His new music is the safety of silence.
Despite the one-sided evil at work, "The Pianist" has a powerful three-dimensionality. There are humanistic Nazis here as well as sadistic killers; Jews who are unscrupulous and ones who proudly resist. Surprise is the norm. And even as the war turns for the better, it's unclear whether Wladyslaw's luck will hold. When he meets one last German (Thomas Kretschmann) who has the power of life and death over him, there are no guarantees.
Polanski, himself a survivor of Nazi-occupied Poland, has created a near-masterpiece. With cinematographer Pawel Edelman's darkly powerful images and production designer Allan Starski's stunning re-creations of a shattered Europe, the director has finally reprised (maybe even eclipsed) the brilliance of his heyday -- which includes "Knife in the Water," "Repulsion," "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown." It's great for him, and everyone, that there's life in this old fighter yet. In 2 1/2 hours -- a whole world war -- he keeps you holding your breath. And he makes sure you don't breathe easily until you've left the theater.
THE PIANIST (R, 148 minutes) -- Contains disturbing violence and emotionally affecting material. Has some German with subtitles. Area theaters.