By Nov. 15, 1940, the Germans had forced nearly 500,000 Polish Jews into a walled ghetto inside Warsaw; by the time the Germans retreated from the country about four years later, only 20 Jews were left alive in the city. One of them was the accomplished classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, the subject of Roman Polanski's new film, The Pianist.
Polanski is a Holocaust survivor himself: At age 7, he escaped the Krakow ghetto through a hole in a barbed-wire fence. The acclaimed director had always intended to make a movie about World War II, but was intent on finding the right story -- ideally a personal account (not his own) that would tell a hopeful tale of art and humanity during a time of desperation. When he happened upon Szpilman's 1946 autobiographical book about Warsaw's demise (Death of a City), Polanski had found the material he was looking for.
At age 27 in 1939, Szpilman was doing a live performance of Chopin for Polish state radio when the station, and the entire metropolis of Warsaw, was dive-bombed by the Luftwaffe. Soon after, Szpilman and his family were sent to the Warsaw ghetto, where he played piano in underground pubs. Though his family was eventually transferred to death camps, Szpilman eluded deportation and lived through the war with the help of fellow Jews and a sympathetic German officer. After liberation, Szpilman returned to Polish state radio as musical director, reintroducing the soft sound of the piano to his war-torn country by playing the same Chopin tune that had been so violently disrupted in '39.
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The Pianist-- which stars Adrien Brody (Summer of Sam and Liberty Heights) -- is the first film Polanski has shot in Poland in 40 years, and is perhaps his most personal artistic gesture to date. Make no mistake: This isn't just another WWII movie. Rather, it's an authentic story about the triumph of art against the brutal face of war.