Roman Polanski’s latest film opens in Warsaw circa 1939, on the light-as-air piano sounds of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew making a recording for Polish radio. As bombs destroy the building, Szpilman stays on his stool as long as possible, combating the ever-advancing violence of World War II by playing amid the furious blasts — the only way he knows.

It’s a perfect grace note to open The Pianist, which chronicles the Holocaust through profoundly disturbing visuals and situations much like Schindler’s List without mimicking it.

Polanski’s film does succeed in the same way as Schindler’s List, though, giving Szpilman’s journey a profoundly moving sweep by filtering the evil through human ways. While finally leaving the bombed studio, Szpilman (Adrien Brody) still has the polish and charm to be casually flirtatious with an attractive woman. 

And the tone of a scene in which Szpilman’s family debates where the best place to hide their extra money from roaming police is like an unsettling, domestic comedy. The fact that Polanski allows us to know all the Szpilmans so well before they’re corralled into a Polish ghetto makes their travails so quietly horrifying. 

As the ghetto atrocities increase, Polanski gets to the core of his brilliance as a director — his ability to balance the film’s exterior nightmares with Szpilman’s internal hell. 

Brutalities are filmed with unsettling immediacy, but typically viewed from a faraway perspective that matches Szpilman’s — he doesn’t know whether to fulfill his human instinct to hang back and survive or his nationalist instinct to stand and fight. After an escape from gassing, in which only luck is responsible, Szpilman must come close with the detritus littering the ghetto streets and the horror of his own indecision. It is a battle infinitely more taxing than any he could fight with a gun.

Szpilman is forced to be silent as he moves from one abandoned apartment to the next, and Brody meticulously conveys his mental, spiritual and physical deterioration. His intensity comes from body language and facial expressions, not carefully placed, dramatic monologue. It is a beguiling performance that feels wholly personal.

Tackling this subject matter must have been equally personal for director Polanski — himself a Holocaust survivor who wandered Warsaw as a young boy after being spared the gas chamber. He almost certainly saw a mirror reflection in the story of Szpilman, whose fate, much like the war itself, was dictated largely by the whims of men — good and bad Jews and Germans whose decisions played a crucial part. By turning his sights on his own demons, the result is a film both chilling and cathartic that is one of last year’s best films.