Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is a young pianist in Warsaw in 1939 when the Nazis invade. Both he and his upper-middle-class Jewish family maintain the belief that once the French and English become involved the Germans will be defeated. But for the Szpilmans and Warsaw's other Jews life grows more difficult and ominous. Initially they are forced to wear identifying armbands. Then the Jewish population is relocated to the ghettos where Wladyslaw gets work as musician in a Jewish restaurant. Finally the transports from the ghettos to the camps begin. The Szpilmans like so many others are summoned to the eastbound trains. Waiting to board Wladyslaw is recognized by an acquaintance with the Jewish unit forced to work with the Germans and makes his escape. Thus begins his life underground as he struggles to survive as a Jew in Warsaw outside the ghetto. In fact Wladyslaw's apartment actually overlooks the ghetto. His situation undercover grows direr as the war nears its end and the Russians approach Warsaw. Disheveled and near starvation he escapes from his bombed-out apartment and finds shelter in an abandoned building. There a German officer discovers him. Confronted by the soldier Wladyslaw explains that he had been a musician before the war. The officer orders him to perform and Wladyslaw does this to perfection. Placated the officer spares his life and Wladyslaw miraculously survives the war.
Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw is given few lines but manages to deliver a wholly believable if not compelling character. Mastering the skills of a silent screen star Brody--silently but with a menu of facial expressions and physical mannerisms--conveys the endangered Wladyslaw. Supporting characters all ring true but are less memorable.
Roman Polanski reminds why he is one of the world's greatest living filmmakers. He delivers an entirely realistic picture of the terrible years of Nazi occupation of Warsaw and more impressively the violent destruction of the city as Allied bombing pummeled and Russian forces entered Warsaw. Less impressive is the director's work with his actors. His main character's plight is convincingly hellish but the emotional lives of all protagonists are implied not evoked. Polanski's physical production is hugely impressive but his characters are far less vivid. This work is personal as Polanski himself is a Polish Jew who barely survived the Holocaust. Still audiences may wish that more drama and emotional truths had emerged from Polanski's depiction of Wladyslaw and the rest of his beleaguered family.