It is very difficult to review a film like The Pianist objectively, considering the extremely powerful subject and source material. The film is a very close adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman's eye witness account of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. A Jew, he saw first hand the ghetto, and - incredibly avoiding the cattle trucks to the death camps - survived through to the arrival of Soviet troops.
Roman Polanski, who directs, also escaped the Warsaw ghetto, making him a perfect choice for this screen adaptation. His direction capturing Szpilman's style of writing, without judgement or melodrama (such as Schindler's List), and underlining his experience as purely a survivor. This is often considered a failing in the film, as the screenplay sticks very close to the written account. There are large periods of the picture that are devoid of dialogue and seem to lack forward momentum.
Judging the film adversely because of this decision, is perhaps due to a desire for it to address bigger issues and be presented on a larger canvas. The narrative follows Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) constantly, never straying away from his point of reference. If it happens behind a wall, we do not see it, if it happens around the corner of the street, we are left to listen and observe reactions of others.
This is a strength of the film; Polanski does not get bogged down in the impossible task of attempting to explain why those horrors occurred. The result is very reminiscent of the classic British style of writing, such as by authors like H.G. Wells, who's protagonists do not drive the narrative, but primarily observe. In The Pianist we feel the helplessness of a person in the midst of unnatural events. The word survivor is used endlessly when describing this film, and the implication of a sole survivor of a plane crash sums up the sheer arbitrary nature of Szpilman's story.
The film has faults though. Wooden, stilted acting from much of the support - emphasised by Brody's finest performance - taints the immaculately recreated scenes. It is as if Polanski was only interested in Szpilman, similar to the way Tim Burton forgets to direct characters he does not connect with.
But don't forget the music; the interrupted performance at the beginning and Chopin Grande Polonaise Brillante at finale, perfectly bookending the film with unspoken import. There is a joy in seeing the reflection of the pianist's hands reaching back from the dark, polished wood of the piano, as Brody portrays the true joy in creating such beautiful sounds. It also gives us the stand out scene in the film, viewable below.
There is much left unexplained, especially concerning Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann), the German officer who acts in a very unexpected way. Read the book, it contains details that will surprise you.